True Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or parmesan as it is known in many places, has a distinct salty flavor and hard texture. Produced since at least the 13th century in Italy, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made of pure cow’s milk, with few additives. Experts recommend pairing this grating or table cheese with robust red wines, fruit and honey or with any tomato-based dish.
The cheese is made with very specific rules, beginning with the diet of the cows used in production. The cows used may be fed only grass and hay, with any other food is forbidden. As a raw milk cheese, the quality of the milk is extremely important and therefore rigorously checked, to prevent the possibility of transmittable diseases.
In Northern Italy, the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia are the homes of authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The process begins when a part-skim milk mixture is combined with whey and allowed to heat. Traditional versions of the cheese then add calf rennet, although some modern varieties use a microbial rennet instead, to create curdling. The curdled mix is placed in a round mold and pressed into a wheel, stamped with brand name and production dates. After the imprinting process, the cheese is placed in salt water, or brine, for about a month, giving the cheese its salty tang.
The cheese is aged at least one year, but many versions are aged for an additional year after this. Its flavor, in addition to being quite salty, is nutty and mild. The cheese is extremely hard, and is often grated for serving ease. In the United States, it is commonly added to soups and pastas, but other countries serve it as a table cheese, to be eaten on its own or paired with wine and fruits.
In Europe, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a trademarked name, and can only be used to identify cheese from the specific allowed areas of Italy. The production of Italian parmesan is overseen by a government-created body, called Consorzio. Cheeses are tested by Consorzio during production, to ensure the proper standards and maintain the uniformity of cheese that bears the authentic name. Outside of Europe, parmesan is a generic term that describes a wide variety of grated cheese, some of seriously substandard quality.
If you are used to cans filled with a powdery white cheese marked “parmesan,” it is high time to improve your cheese knowledge; powdered parmesan is a dead giveaway of a substandard cheese, made through a totally different process and barely resembling true parmesan. Visit a local deli or specialty foods store and look for authentic, un-grated, imported Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. Grate it yourself, or if possible, some cheese experts recommend shaving the cheese for easier tasting. The world of cheese is broad and wide, and many consider parmesan to be its true king. Don’t let another Italian evening pass you by without the briny, nutty, goodness of real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.