Parmesan cheese: beyond appearances
Sometimes things are not as they seem: a flake of Parmesan is not just a cheese, but an outline of history, love and passion, the result of an almost thousand year old tradition which – passed down from generation to generation – has made something that may appear to most as a simple cheese famous the world over.
From the intimacy and simplicity of the dairy farms which dot the countryside from the Apennines to the Po, the patience and care of cheese making masters astounds and wins over millions of connoisseurs every day who confirm the quality of a cheese that fears no comparisons.
Where: the territory
Tasting the Parmesan cheese, the palate immediately appreciates the high quality and natural ingredients: two essential components which have made Parmesan unique and world renowned for its authenticity, guaranteed by the complete and utter lack of additives and preservatives.
In fact, this is an ironclad rule that prevents the more than four thousand dairy farms from using fodder silage and fermented foods as well as requiring only the use of milk that is constantly subjected to controls which guarantee its high quality.
From these dispositions only a genuine and environmentally friendly product can be produced, the perfect duo for what is defined as “the king of cheese” and what has its natural habitat in the plains, hills and mountains located between the Po and the Rhine in the province of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and part of the Mantua and Bologna provinces.
Parmesan cheese processing follows ritual and patient acts which have always characterised the way this delicacy is made: in the evening the milking is carried out and the milk is then left to stand in large reservoirs for the entire night in order to allow the fatty part, destined for the production of butter, rise to the surface.
In the morning the skimmed milk is then poured into the characteristic copper boilers shaped like an upside-down bell, where it is joined by whole milk from the morning milking, calf curd and whey starter, rich in natural lactic cultures obtained from the process on the day before.
After only about ten minutes the milk coagulates and the experience and professionalism of the master cheese makers comes into play: an antique instrument called a curd knife is used to break the curd which shatters into lots of small grains that, heated with a cooking process to 55 degrees, fall to the bottom of the boiler and form a single mass.
The compact and caseous mass is then extracted by the master cheese maker after about 50 minutes with movements that come from skills acquired throughout the generations.
Once extracted the cheese is divided into two parts and wrapped in a cloth to then be lodged in the cheese mould which will give it the typical round and definitive shape that we all know so well. Finally a casein plate is applied to the wheel, a personalised code that determines the uniqueness of the wheel followed by the application of the branding strip that contains the information on the production month and year, the dairy serial number and the dotted text that characterises the circumference of the wheels: identifying marks that accompany the cheese all the way to the consumer’s table, guaranteeing quality and traceability.
Once the processing phase is complete it is submerged in a water and salt solution for about one month.
When: the maturing process
After production comes the maturing process: a year or more during which time will do its duty and dry the external part of the wheel naturally, forming a natural crust without any treatments.
The coronation to “king of cheeses” takes place with the solemn marking ceremony: not all the cheeses matured in accordance with the indications described above become Parmesan; this requires the approval of the protection consortium through a careful examination conducted by experts. Only those that comply with the rigid quality standards will be marked with the fired stamp and will obtain the status of Protected Denomination of origin as well as, depending on the grade of maturation, the typical coloured stamps, a distinctive sign which can be easily recognised even by the consumer.
The freshest, if we can call them so, with “only” one year of maturation, are classified as a second category called “Mezzano” (medium), whereas those with18 months can receive a further mark called “Extra” or “Export”.
Those which do not conform will be literally rejected and stripped of any marking and the characteristic dotted writing.
Not all Parmesan cheeses are the same: here are the stamps
People are quick to talk about Parmesan cheese, but they are certainly not all the same: organoleptic characteristics, flavour and the best combinations are only a few of the qualities that distinguish them.
To help the consumer make the right selection, here are the classifications that have been established:
lobster red stamp for cheeses with at least 18 months of maturation with a rather accentuated lactic base and a flavour of herbs and flowers that makes it ideal for snacks and tasty aperitifs;
silver stamp for cheeses with at least 22 months of maturation with a bolder flavour and a hint of fresh fruit and citrus;
gold stamp, for cheeses with at least 30 months of maturation, during which a long flavour concentration process has taken place.
A true cure-all
Besides being nice to look at with its crumbly flakes and grainy structure, good to eat and easy to digest, Parmesan cheese is also healthy: a true concentrate of proteins, vitamins, calcium and minerals make it suitable for all ages and any occasion.
The guarantee: the protection Consortium
Eating matured cheese with the certainty of tasting optimum and genuine Parmesan is every consumer’s right and this right is guaranteed by the supervision of the protection Consortium which has been active for more than sixty years.