Foods You Should Know: Parmigiano Reggiano

I haven’t talked much about cheese on this blog and that is a problem. So when current events are brought to my attention*, I must jump at the chance of a teachable moment. On may 20th of this year an earthquake hit the northern Italian region of Emilia Romagna**, destroying about two billion euros worth of it’s key export Parmigiano Reggiano or to the lay person Parmasean Cheese. Large ageing houses for Italy’s best known cheese were rocked by the quake and years worth of product was destroyed. This means most likely sky high prices and shortages of the cheese.

Italy is serious about food and wine. So serious in fact that they have created systems of regionally and quality control to make sure that producers stick to the highest standards while at the same time protecting producers against competition from outside their region. This DOC system for cheese, wine, vinegar, olive oil, etc, allows producers to make their products using traditional methods, and ingredients while using more modern supply chain and exportation tactics.

What is it and how is it made?

Parmigiano Reggiano is a cows milk cheese. I am not going to go into the entire process of how the cheese is made because it is really complicated and exhaustive but I will try and do a quick summery. Raw whole milk is blended with skimmed milk to create a partly skimmed milk. That mixture is added to copper vats which are used to heat and cool the mixture***, whey starter and rennet is added. Once the milk curdles the curd is collected and the wheels of cheese are then produced. It normally takes around 115 lbs of curd to create one wheel of cheese. The cheese is then pressed into that wheel shape and then stamped and label as DOC Parmigiano Reggiano. The aging process then begins. The cheese is then taken to bring(salt water) and aged for about 25 days. After the brining process the cheese is dry aged for a minimum of 12 months. After 12 months the cheese is tested and graded by the government run DOC inspection agent. Cheese with lower grades are then readied for the market and high graded cheeses are left to age longer.

Why is Parmigiano Reggiano so good?

Parmigiano Reggiano is great because it is one of the rare examples of Umami in non asian food. As we covered way back in my exhaustive article on Sushi, Umami is the fifth distinct taste that we were never taught in school(Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Umami). Umami is a savoury, or deep brothy flavour which is prevalent in soy products which usually reside in asian cuisine. We now know that in hard, salty, aged cheese Umami is also very present. This flavour, whether we recognize it or not, makes our brains stop and say, “oh shit, I like that.” It’s also why Parmigiano Reggiano is such a good condiment, you can put it on anything, just like Soy Sauce is to asian cuisine.

So what does this Earthquake mean to me?

We you can look at in two ways. First, this is the end of the world, I am going to end up paying half my salary for the thing I love and that sucks. Or second, is Parmigiano Reggiano is too expensive maybe I can expand my horizons and see what other kinds of cheeses I can use as a substitute. I have two of these substitutes for you right now.

1. Peccorino Romano: A sheep’s milk cheese made on the island of Sardinia from sheep which are raised in Lazio(think Rome). It has many of the same flavour qualities as Parmigiano Reggiano but it costs less and  for those with Lactose issues is lactose free. It’s a great replacement for Parmigiano Reggiano.

2. Manchego Viejo: Spain’s answer to Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s actually an aged sheep’s milk cheese which goes through a different process which includes a wax coating and olive oil baths. It comes from the region of La Mancha and it’s younger versions are very different than it’s aged version which is harder and saltier.

So now that you know a little more about Parmigiano Reggiano, and the current problems with it’s production. Go to your local cheese shop and buy it while it’s still a reasonable price, it lasts a long time and if you buy enough you could end up being the neighbourhood hook up for all things Umami.

*Thanks to reader and all around cutie Sarah L for the link to this earthquake story.

**Beyond amazing food, wine and cheese, Emilia Romagna also produces great filmmakers. Bernardo Bertolucci, Michaelangelo Antonioni and Fredrico Fellini are all from the northern Italian province. *Trying not to make a Last Tango In Paris Butter joke*

*** Copper is an amazing metal in many ways. It’s very conductive when it comes to heating and cooling but it also has the ability to bind to many impurities in food and spirits. Which actually means that your milk will have fewer, heavy metals, free radicals and radioactivity when copper is used in it’s production.