A couple years ago I traveled to the Emilia Romagna region in central Italy to visit a Parmigiano Reggiano factory. I fell in love with Parmigiano Reggiano well before this trip. I don’t remember when exactly but know that I have never looked back on the days when I used to spend hard earned money on “shaky cheese” as my college roommate called it. You know the stuff, it came in the green container and was all the rage when our parents were preparing homemade pasta sauce that we destroyed by shaking this artificial concoction all over – such a waste.
My visit took me to Collecchio – Montecoppe Cheese Farm, a medium sized factory, but as is the case of many companies in Italy seemed quite small compared to “companies” in America. The rule of lengthy, highly skilled training for most gastronomic professions in Italy was definitely true for the training involved to become a master cheese-maker. They are trained approximately 10 years before they are considered a professional. The workers are focused, buff and passionate about what they do. Collecchio – Montecoppe produces about 12 wheels of cheese a day using approximately 600 liters of Italian cow’s milk. The cows get milked once at night and once in the morning. These two milkings produce what is referred to as a “lot” of cheese. I went to see the cows grazing in their pasture and they seemed quite content munching on their diet of fresh grass and hay.
In the factory, Montecoppe begins with a starter much like a sour dough starter. They use very large copper lined cauldrons which are partially buried in the ground so the workers are at waist height when working with the cheese. About 2 teaspoons of cow rennet is placed in the cauldron. Besides causing the cheese to curdle, the rennet is bacteria that eats the proteins and turns into enzymes. The result is teeny little crystals – if you’ve been lucky enough to taste these crystals you are among the fortunate to have eaten very fresh cheese as the crystals go away in time.
After the rennet is added, the workers pull the cheese to the side of the cauldron with a large wooden paddle. To lift the cheese out of the cauldron a burlap cloth with two sticks on both ends work as extensions of the workers arms to help pull the cheese up and out of the cauldron. This is where being buff comes in handy as the cheese weighs approximately 200 pounds! Once out of the cauldron the cheese in it’s burlap cloth is tied to a large metal rod – much like one would tie a pig for roasting. The cheese rests a bit before it is divided in half with a long, blunt edged knife. The halves are wrapped in cheese cloth and shaped.
Once the cheese has properly drained it is placed in large white drums lined with a band that has the infamous “Parmigiano Reggiano” designation written all the way around it along with several other important markings – the month and year the cheese is produced, and the DOP designation (the food equivalent to DOC for Italian wine), the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano issued number specific to the cheese factory, a space for the application of the certification mark once the wheel passes inspection and a “tag” that gives a specific number to each wheel of cheese. This “tag” is put into a database so it can be identified and tracked at any given moment until purchased by the consumer. The cheese in it’s drum is then wrapped in the cloth and a very large, very heavy round disk is placed on top to help press out moisture.
The cheese sits 2-3 days on wood that has carved grooves in it to hold excess water that has been pressed out of the cheese. The cheese then goes into a salt brine where it is turned by hand everyday to get even salting. It stays in brine for 20 days then the cheese is moved out of the brine and aged another 24 months or more in a warehouse.
Some factories have their own warehouse to age their cheese while others use rented warehouse space. Since Montecoppe wouldn’t allow me to visit their warehouse, I visited a warehouse that houses 3-4 factories cheeses. This warehouse had 20,000+ wheels in it. It used a clever robot to go up and down each aisle, take each wheel of cheese off the shelf, vacuum the shelf, dust the cheese, flip the wheel and place it back on the shelf. Workers inspected the cheese daily for flaws, mold, etc. If the cheese had a flaw or mold, a master would use several kinds of utensils to cut, gouge, or scrape the flaw or mold and then when warranted a blow torch to reseal the flawed part.
If a cheese has a flaw, mold etc. and even if fixed by the master it is no longer perfect and can no longer be marked as Parmigiano Reggiano. In this case, the cheese will either be branded with grooves horizontally all over the side of the wheel and sold as prima stagionatura (young Parmigiano Reggiano) or if the flaw is severe enough, the entire rind of the wording “Parmigiano Reggiano” would be cut off and the cheese would be sold as table cheese.
After 12 months of aging, inspectors knock on the cheese with a hammer type tool and if it sounds good (this is where some of that training kicks in) he passes it and it gets branded with the certification mark. The cheese continues to age anywhere from 13-30 months total. If the cheese is aged at least 18 months, it can be inspected again and if approved can get a stamp saying “extra” or “export” which means it is of superior quality.
In case you’re wondering the dark coloring on the outside, particularly the markings, and the natural rind that forms in the aging process is edible and good to grate in dishes or place in minestrone, etc. for extra flavor (pull the rind out before serving).
The process is extensive and the workers highly skilled but the pay off is worth it and is why Parmigiano Reggiano has earned the name of “The King of Cheese!”
If you’re interested in purchasing some authentic Parmigiano Reggiano it is available in the Deep Red Cellar store or you can buy from my affiliates, DEAN & DELUCA or Worlds Foods.