The best known of the Italian hard cheeses, Parmesan is a heady cow’s milk cheese that showcases a golden rind, straw-coloured interior and rich, sharp flavour. As a popular table cheese and cooking ingredient, Parmesan is made throughout the world, particularly in Argentina, Australia and the United States. However, none of these renditions can compare to the Italian original, the preeminent Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is adored for its complex nutty-salty flavour and granular, melt-in-your-mouth texture. A long ageing period is what ultimately distinguishes Parmigiano-Reggiano from the rest. While a typical American Parmesan might be aged 14 months, Parmigiano-Reggianos are often minimally aged for two years. Cheeses labelled “Stravecchio” and “Stravecchione” are aged three and four years respectively, and the finest Parmigiano-Reggianos may be aged for up to seven years. During ageing, the firm, savoury cheese matures much like a fine wine.
Parmigiano-Reggiano has been a great cheese for at least eight centuries. It was first mentioned in the writings of Adamo Salimbene, a monk who lived in Parma around 1200 to 1300 AD. Historical evidence shows the cheese had already reached its famous typicality by this time, with references to Parmesan in Boccaccio’s Decameron (1364) telling us the cheese was quite well known throughout northern Italy. In 1568, Bartolomeo Scappi, a Dominican under the charge of Pope Pius V, published a cookbook that proclaimed Parmesan to be the best cheese on earth.
Today Parmigiano-Reggiano is made completely by hand, just as it was eight centuries ago. With traditional artisan methods and ritual gestures proudly passed down through the generations, the cheese simply refuses to be changed by automation or modern technology. Its ingredients are genuinely local milk, rennet, salt and art.
The production of Parmigiano-Reggiano begins annually on April 1 and promptly ends on November 11. Whole milk from cows that graze northern Italy’s rich pasturelands is mixed with naturally skimmed milk and as well as some whey from the previous evening’s cheese making. The mixture is heated in copper vats and then rennet is added to encourage curdling (interestingly enough, whey that remains in the copper vats is traditionally used to feed local pigs fated to become Parma Hams). The curds are then poured into wheel-shaped forms and aged for at least two years. It takes about 490 litres of milk to make one wheel of Parmesan, which weighs about 32 to 36 kg.
In the European Union, the Parmesan name is protected by law. As such, the name may only be used in reference to DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) Parmigiano-Reggiano produced in the north Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantova and Bologna.
Outside Europe, however, many local cheeses are sold under a more generic label of Parmesan. To distinguish true Parmigiano-Reggiano from the imitations, check the rind for signature parallel lines and a branded stamp of small dots spelling out the Parmigiano-Reggiano name.
You’ll find Parmigiano-Reggiano at cheese shops and in supermarkets. Look for cheeses that feature even colouring from the outer edge to the centre. Never purchase wedges without rinds, and avoid those with cracking or very white colouring. These have been sitting on the market shelf too long and are likely beginning to dry out.
Also, while pre-grated Parmesan is an economical and convenient option, you will notice a significant difference in flavour. You’re better off purchasing a fine wedge of Parmesan and grating the cheese for recipes as needed. Or save Parmigiano-Reggiano for table service and use cheaper Parmesans for cooking. In Italy, Parmesans used for grating are called “Grana.”
Parmesan may be stored in the refrigerator for up to four weeks. To preserve the flavour and texture, wrap it first in a layer of wax paper, then in foil. Each time you use the cheese, be sure to re-wrap it in a clean sheet of paper.
Parmesan may also be frozen, whole or shaved. Double wrap the cheese and freeze for up to six months, then thaw it in the refrigerator and use within a few days. While freezing may cause Parmesan to become slightly more crumbly in texture, this will be hardly noticeable if the cheese is used in cooked dishes.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is an essential cooking ingredient in Italy, adding flavour and aroma to everything from antipasto dishes and sauces to greens, meats and pies. Throughout the world, it’s a classic topping for pizza, pasta, risotto and soups like the famous minestrone. Always slice, shave or grate just what you need, and preferably just before serving or adding to a recipe.
To appreciate Parmigiano-Reggiano at its finest, enjoy it as the Italians do – as a table cheese. Experience the full delicacy of its flavour by eating Parmesan plain, or complement it with ripe pears, apples, figs, grapes and walnuts. As for wine, Parmigiano-Reggiano goes well with Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, but in Italy, it’s been paired for centuries with a dry red Lambrusco.
Once you’ve finished your Parmesan Don’t Throw The Rind Away.