Remember that kids’ song, “On Top of Spaghetti” and the spaghetti is “all covered with cheese”? Odds are that cheese is parmesan, but if you want your pasta to be legit, it’s got to be real Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy.
There is a strict and historic legacy of governance and rules regarding what is proper Parmigiano Reggiano, and what can be called its english translation, parmesan, at least in Europe. Controlled by European laws of “protected designation of origin,” true Parmigiano-Reggiano is only made by certified producers located in the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna (west of the Reno) and Mantua (south of the Po).
In the US and Canada, though, cheese producers skirt the EU law and call cheese made here “Parmesan,” because they can. And because people buy it. But there’s nothing like the real deal, and consumers are urged to look for “parmesan” that is a product of Italy and called Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you’re buying it right off the wheel, look for the block-letter stamp on the rind.
One place in Canada that sells real Parmigiano-Reggiano is the Loblaw family of stores (Loblaws, Real Canadian Superstore, City Market) under their President’s Choice label. Dedicated to importing quality foods, Loblaws took a few lucky Canadian food writers right to the source: Parma and Reggio Emilia, to a certified creamery, dairy farm, and packing facility, to learn how the Parmigiano-Reggiano sold at Loblaw stores is made.
From the farm to your table, the entire process of making Parmigiano-Reggiano adheres to strict routines and regulations. From pre-dawn, when one half of the day’s milk is dropped off, through the full cheese-making day, to evening, when the other half of the day’s milk is delivered, the creamery is humming. 34 to 50 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano are made as part of one day’s efforts (depending on the season), however it will be anywhere from 12 to over 36 months until those wheels come off the shelves in the epic adjoining storage facility and are broken down and shipped to Loblaw stores.
Want to learn how Parmigiano-Reggiano is made? We’ll show you!
Part 1: The farm
Everything starts at the farm. The particular creamery we visited works with this certified dairy farm. The cows are fed a special blend of alfalfa, and are milked following a schedule that the farmers can monitor from a smartphone app–true modern farming at work.
“The better we treat them, the better they treat us,” the cheesemaker says, noting the multiple measures in place to ensure the cows’ welfare.
The farms that produce milk used for Parmigiano-Reggiano must also adhere to strict rules in order to be certified; even where the cows are born matters. Individual cows are milked once, then not again for several days, or months, depending on at which–if any–stage of gestation they are.
Part 2: At the creamery
The milk arrives in two daily deliveries, morning and evening. The evening milk goes directly from the farm into the creamery’s flatbed open tanks, and the fat is separated. The morning delivery is added directly to the separated (skimmed) milk from the prior night; that’s why the milk is considered “part-skim.” There’s no waste, though–that cream skimmed away is sent out to become butter.
The milk is distributed into double walled copper tanks. For a standard day’s run, 17 tanks will be in use, for a yield of 34 wheels. The milk is warmed and stirred; the copper tanks are steam-heated from within their double walls.
Parmigiano-Reggiano has three ingredients: Milk, rennet, and salt. Using a carefully timed system, the rennet is introduced, and all times are noted on each tank.
The cheesemaker and his crew monitor each tank, moving like clockwork through the steps. As the process continues, they dilligent check at each stage for doneness, in order to proceed.
Once the desired texture is achieved, the crew gets ready to drain the cheese. It takes a team to hoist the cheese into a cloth for straining that is attached to a rod. That ball of cheese hangs and drains, until the team returns to skillfully separate it into two halves; each half will become one wheel of cheese, weighing 38 kilos apiece.
The halves are then carried one by one and fitted into the molds.
Part 3: Storage and aging
The cheesemaking is done in a matter of hours, but the real work for making these orbs into Parmigiano-Reggiano has just begun. Each mold is fitted with the plastic insert stamped with the producer’s seal and proof of certification. This will be imprinted into the rind.
The rind, incidentally, is nothing more than salt water hardening the outermost ring of each wheel. The completed wheels are cooled and dried, and dipped in a salt water brine, and submerged for several days, in an incredible stack that’s six wheels tall. Watching one emerge from the brine tank is quite the sight to see.
And, yes, you can ingest the rind of a real wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, though you’ll want to give it a thorough scrubbing before consuming.
The final destination for the brined wheels are the shelves in the storage area. It is absolutely as awesome as one might imagine. Cold, quiet, and on rows scaling dizzying heights, there’s nothing quite like walking through aisles of cheese worth millions and millions of dollars.
The longer the cheese ages, the more pronounced the flavour. Most of what we see in the stores is aged 24 to 36 months. At those ages, the Parmigiano-Reggiano will have developed those sharp crystals that add snap and depth to the cheese. If you’ve only ever had your Parm grated, try just eating a chunk on its own–it’s delicious, and a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano can really take your cheese plate to the next level.
As part of the process, the wheels are checked for soundness. What happens if a wheel isn’t sound? All is not lost; the cheese can go on to have a life as a table cheese–it just won’t be labeled certified Parmigiano-Reggiano, and will most likely be enjoyed locally by the region’s residents, who consider the cheese part of their every day diet.
Part 4: Packaging
Wheels that are ready for packaging are moved to the processing plant, where they are broken down according to the client’s needs. For Loblaw stores, the wheels are mechanically sliced and cored, then broken into pie-slice wedges, then packaged. Many stores also receive full wheels that they crack open and package at the deli counter.
As part of the process, chunks that break off are consolidated and are what become shredded or pre-grated parmesan. So, yes, if you are buying pre-grated certified Parmigiano-Reggiano imported from Italy, you are getting the real deal, not filler.
Part 5: Eating!
The best part about Parmigiano-Reggiano is, obviously, eating it. Whether it’s on its own by the bite, cooked, or freshly grated to top your favourite Italian dish, its quality is unmistakeable. Nothing beats the real deal.