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We are going back to Canada soon and my niece asked me to bring her back some parmesan. I only recently discovered that it is perfectly legal to bring cheese into Canada as long as its no more than 20kg at a value of $20 or less. Whoever came up with that price must have last bought cheese about 50 years ago!
Anyhow, what better place to get parmesan than Fidz’s home province of Emilia-Romagna where we were last week. A cheese can only be called Parmigiano-Reggiano if it is made in a small area between Parma and Bologna. Supposedly, the milk produced by cattle who graze in that area is different from elsewhere and the cheese does not taste the same if made with milk from anywhere else. Cheese made in exactly the same way in other parts of the province is called Grano Padano. We were able to compare as we had lunch with Fidz’s uncle near Piacenza and were offered the local Grano Padano while we went back to Fidz’s home south of Parma for dinner and had Parmigiano. I have to admit that they do taste slightly different and Grano Padano has a grainier texture. However, one likely would not be able to tell the difference when used for cooking and Grano Padano is cheaper.
The making of Parmigiano started in 1200 or so with Benedictine and Cistercian monks living in monasteries between the Po river and the Appenines. Until around 40 years ago, there were many small farms making Parmigiano. A lot of these farms would also raise pigs for making prosciutto as the pigs would be fed with the whey left over from cheesemaking mixed with wheat chaff. Now, the operation is more centralised and streamlined. We went to a co-operative in Migliara where milk is brought in from the high plains in the mountains so the Parmigiano made here is ‘mountain’ parmesan which has a superb taste and is delicious eaten on its own. These ‘mountain’ producers are slowly fading out as the logistics of bringing in milk and transporting cheese on narrow mountain roads make it more expensive to produce.
The milk collected in the evening is poured into large stainless steel trays and allowed to settle so that the cream (which is used for making butter) rises to the top. The next day, the bottom layer is allowed to flow into a large copper vat and milk collected in the morning is added. Some whey from the day before as well as rennet are also added. The milk coagulates and is stirred at a temperature of around 55C using a huge stainless steel balloon whisk called a spino so that the curds form little granules. We actually arrived at the co-op in the afternoon and this part had already been completed and the vats cleaned ready for the evening milk.
After the granules have been stirred to the right consistency, the curds are are put into muslin and allowed to drain. The contents of each vat are divided in two, called gemelli (twins), and placed in large plastic moulds called fascera still wrapped in muslin. In the afternoon, the muslin is removed and perforated stamps are placed between the cheese and the side of the mould giving the name of the cheese maker and the date. This will become imprinted on the cheese and represents its mark of origin like on a wine label.
Then they are placed in salt water where they are turned every day for about 3 weeks.
The production process is now completed and the wheels are taken to the storage room where they are placed on shelves and mechanically turned every week. The outside of the cheese dries forming a natural crust which, by the way, is edible. Maturation has to be at least 12 months and at this stage, the cheese can be sold as a ‘fresh’ parmesan called mezzano, not really Parmigiano but the promise of one and regarded as inferior.
At this point, Parmigiano experts called ‘battitori’ check the consistency and quality of the cheese by hitting the wheels with little hammers and checking for the right vibrations. Wheels with cracks or faults in them are discarded. The ones that have passed the test are fire-branded and allowed to continue maturing for another 2 years. The cost of the cheese depends on its age. Fidz’s father used to be a Parmesan inspector on the fiscal side and his job was to visit the small mountain cheese makers and make sure they weren’t branding cheeses as older than they really were to get a better price. Part of the work entailed inserting a thin tube into the centre of the wheel and removing a sliver to taste in order to confirm the age of a batch. What a great job!