Coming of age
How parmesan came to rule the pasta world.
Parmesan has such culinary status and yet it is so readily available around the world.
Parmigiano, or parmesan has been produced for over 900 years. From the late 1920s the consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano was formed to produce parmesan consistently and of the highest quality, then later, in the 1950s, it was awarded a DOP (denominazione di origine protetta, or protected origin status) meaning it had to come from the regions of Parma, Reggio-Emilia and Modena, and Mantua right of the River Po, and in Bologna left of the river Reno, giving it a very specific boundary of where it can be produced.
Part of the DOP states that it has to be made with milk from cows that have been eating fresh or dried grass from the region, and producers couldn’t bring in extra feed or use silage (fermented feed) for the cows to eat. As a side note, the excess whey from the regions’ cheese making is fed to the local pigs which goes into making prosciutto di Parma, and culatello di Parma, the very best cured hams.
Like any cheese, the flavour varies depending on the age, and the time of year it is produced (different seasons produce more or less protein and fat in the milk and this is reflected in the cheese).
At the start, each wheel of parmesan weighs 45kg which takes up to 550 litres of milk to produce.
These are made in copper vats of 1100 litres, so each parmesan has a twin, as there are two per
vat. Afterwards, each is brined for between 20-25 days before being aged on wooden boards for maturation. Parmigiano-Reggiano must be aged for a minimum of 12 months. At this age the cheese is graded and is the first time it can be called Parmigiano-Reggiano and when it’s given its stamp on the rind - if it doesn’t make the grade, they leave off the insignia and scrape off the indentation and it is sold as generic parmesan. Aged at 12 months, it’s called ‘fresca’, then from 18-24 months it becomes ‘vecchio’, and when extra-aged (up to 36 months) it is called ‘stravecchio’. By the time it has reached stravecchio age the wheel has reduced in weight by 7kg.
With the moisture loss, the salt levels intensify in ageing. The crystals that appear so distinctly in aged parmesans are protein crystals, they are not salt or salty, but rather provide a wonderful texture. These cannot be faked, it is the true sign of the age of the cheese.
If you buy Parmigiano-Reggiano you know it will be of high-quality because of the stamp. In Italy it is considered to be a table cheese, to be served on its own with honey or mustard fruits, or to finish a special bowl of pasta.
Even though this style is of quality it has a prolific production of 3.6 million wheels per year, between 350 producers, and something like 15% of all the milk in Italy goes into the production. Happily, this means that it can be found worldwide and in most supermarkets and grocers in Australia.
The sibling to Reggiano is Grana Padano. This style of parmesan is an everyday grating cheese and can be produced anywhere in the North of Italy. This cheese is produced in the North due to the climate and terroir, as there is more grass for the cows, whereas when you travel further south there is more sheep, goat and buffalo milk produced.
Grana Padano cows have fewer restrictions on the regional boundaries of feed and type of feed, which brings down the cost of production and gives more consistency all year round. Sometimes there are regionally specific cheeses such as Trentingrana from the Dolomites, or Fiandino from Piedmonte - these are proudly stamped to show a sign of region and quality.
Both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano cheeses are similar in terms of the shape and size of the wheel, between 38-40kg per wheel, but there is a very distinct stamp on each to differentiate them.
The term grana means grain, and parmesan has a natural grain to it. Don’t try and slice parmesan with a knife, rather you should put in the point of the knife and wiggle it, and it will naturally follow the grain of the cheese, and break off without too much effort.
The best way to store parmesan is to keep it in waxed paper, in an airtight container in the fridge to keep the moisture levels high - this way it won’t dry out and get cracked and it will stay beautiful and fresh for 2-3 weeks (if stored well can keep for up to 3 months).
If you’re looking to buy an Australian produced parmesan, Mil Lel produce lovely parmesan which
they have been making since the 60s. It’s labelled as parmesan, which is the generic term. Strangely Pecorino Romano here is made with cow’s milk, but that is a whole different story ...
Credits: words by Penny Lawson, photography Lisa Featherby