We took a farm-to-table tour in Italy to discover why Parmigiano-Reggiano is the king of Italian cheeses and how to spot the real deal at the grocery store.
1. The name says it all
Parmigiano-Reggiano is made in specific regions of Italy under strict guidelines. The name is a protected designation of origin (PDO), and the cheese's rind is branded with it to prove authenticity. Similar types of cheese made elsewhere can be labelled only as "Parmesan," and while they may share some characteristics of the original, they pale in flavour and texture.
2. Dynamic duo
Great cheese starts with terroir and cows. Because Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced in a variety of areas—Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena, to name a few—the diverse landscape of rivers, plains and hills lends a rich flavour to the cows' milk. Everything is local; nothing that contributes to the cheese is brought in from elsewhere.
3. Cheese making
The traditional ingredients and artisanal techniques haven't changed since 1934. The recipe starts with a combo of partially skimmed night milk and day milk that's left whole from the morning milking. Then, the usual cheese-making process follows: milk, rennet and leftover whey from the previous batch are added to copper vats; curds form and are broken down. The mixture is heated and left to rest until the curds knit into a solid mass, which is then divided and pressed into moulds. Each one is imprinted with tiny dots spelling "Parmigiano-Reggiano," along with the identification number of the dairy and production date. The cheeses are weighed and submerged in tanks filled with a sea-salt solution to brine for about 20 days.
The wheels are then moved into curing rooms, where they dry on wooden shelves, forming a natural crust. They're wiped, brushed and turned every 10 days. Most wheels are aged for a minimum of one year and up to 36 months. During this long aging, natural fermenting agents get to work—that's what gives the cheese its buttery, nutty flavour and characteristic granular texture.
5. Hammer time
After one year, the cheese is inspected by the Consorzio del Parmigiano-Reggiano to ensure that it meets industry standards. Using a special hammer, called a battitore, the tester examines and taps each wheel, looking for cracks and listening for certain tones that tell if the cheese has aged properly. Cheeses that pass inspection are fire-branded with the PDO certification mark and labelled with coloured seals that represent age.
6. Put that in your basket
Check the packaging for the PDO markings. At home, you can always count on Loblaw—its PC Splendido Parmigiano Reggiano is authentic and available across the country. Or, if you're Italy-bound, some dairies are open for tours. Research and call ahead for an appointment. For more info, contact the Consorzio del Parmigiano-Reggiano or go to parmigianoreggiano.com under the place-of-origin tab.