COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: ITALY
REGION: PARMA, REGGIO EMILIA, MODENA, BOLOGNA AND MANTUA
MILK SOURCE: COW
AGE: 18-36 MONTHS
According to the World Cheese Book, to taste a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano “is to taste a piece of Italian geological, culinary, and cultural history.” We can think of no other cheese that is more associated with, and reflective of, its country of origin. There is nothing like it, and for good reason. Since 1955, the Consorzio del Fromaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano has fought zealously to protect the name and production quality of this hard grating cheese. The consortium dictates that only cheese produced within a very concise region of Italy can be labeled Parmigiano-Reggiano. This region includes the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilio, from which it gets its name. (The word “parmesan” is used for a similar style of cheese produced outside the E.U.)
The recipe dates back to the 12th century, and little has changed. It consists of unpasteurized cow’s milk, salt and calf rennet. Cows must be raised on a diet of grass and hay. The use of silage is strictly prohibited. Each wheel of finished cheese must weigh a minimum of 30kg (66lbs.) and requires 160 gallons of milk. It is stamped with the date of production and a number that identifies the producer. Wheels must age for at least 12 months, at which time they are inspected and, if approved, branded with the consortium’s stamp of quality.
The first notable characteristic of Parmigiano-Reggiano is its grainy texture and straw yellow color. Older cheeses, those aged beyond 30 months, will have a deeper yellow color and will crumble more easily. Cheeses aged for more than 15 months will have small white spots or dots, which are actually a crystallized amino acid that give the cheese a slightly gritty but pleasant texture. Younger cheeses have a butter-like milky smell with grassy notes which will mellow with age and are replaced with a nuttier, spicier fragrance. The taste is a perfect balance of fruity (you may recognize notes of pineapple), salty and nutty. Younger cheeses tend to be slightly acidic, which also dissipates with age.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is known as a grana or grating cheese. So put some on top of pasta dishes, soups, salads or pizza. It is an integral part of classic pesto sauce, but it may be best when eaten by hand in chunks with just a few drops of balsamic vinegar.
Because of its complex flavors, parmesan cheeses do not pair well with bold, complex wines. Instead, select wines that are slightly acidic and fruity. Nebblio-based reds like Barbaresco and Barolo are excellent choices. White wines are a bit tougher to match. Best to go with a sparkling choice such as Proseco or Champagne. You can also try a slightly sweet wine like an off-dry Riesling or Gewürztraminer. For more wine pairing advice check out Paresan.com, hosted by Consorzio del Fromaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Parmigiano-Reggiano stores for weeks in the refrigerator when wrapped in cheese paper or plastic. Don’t be frightened away if a little mold forms. Simply scrap it away. It’s best to buy parmesan in large chunks or wedges. If you cannot use it fast enough, store some in the freezer.