I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
It’s believed that monks in the area of what is now the province of Parma, in Italy, started making the cheese in the 12th century. By the 14th century, the reputation of Parmigiano-Reggiano as a cheese of noble quality was already well established. The cheese became a favourite in France, where it was given the name Parmesan.
In 1348, Giovanni Boccaccio created a fantasy world in his collection of novellas entitled the Decameron. Bengodi was a paradise in which gourmets rolled pasta down a mountain of Parmigiano-Reggiano, to coat it with the wonderful flavour.
In 1666, as the Great Fire was consuming London, the diarist Samuel Pepys buried his greatest treasures to protect them from the flames: “my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.”
In an effort to prolong his life, the French playwright Molière took up a daily diet of 12 ounces of Parmesan and three glasses of port. It didn’t work. In February 1673, he collapsed on stage in a tubercular coughing fit and died shortly after at the age of 51. (But, it’s safe to say he enjoyed the diet better than if it had been kale and water).
Parmigiano-Reggiano has even attracted the attention of crooks. In the 21st century, trucks carrying the cheese have been hijacked by the Mafia.
The cheese is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and the animals eat only grass or hay. They are not fed any growth hormones, antibiotics, or steroids. They placidly graze on natural vegetation only, which contains the three specific bacteria needed to make Parmesan.
The milk, half is skimmed and half is whole milk, is put into large copper-lined containers and whey and rennet (an enzyme from intestines of calves) are added. After heating, the milk curdles.
The curd is collected and placed in round moulds. About 550 litres of milk goes to make each wheel of cheese. The wheel is dunked into a brine bath of Mediterranean sea salt for three to four weeks. Then, it’s time to wait as unseen and unpaid workers—bacteria—toil away. Absolutely nothing else is added.
Stacked on wooden shelves, the wheels of cheese sit and mature for a year. An inspector Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano turns up to check the quality. If it passes, it gets a stamp of approval on its rind. About eight percent of the cheeses are rejected as less than perfect. Then, there’s another year of maturing before going to market.
The end result is what Amanda Ruggeri of the BBC describes as “salty but sweet, grassy but nutty, sharp but rich. There’s its texture: hard but grainy, popping with white crystals.”
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Parmesan cheese is highly nutritious. It is rich in calcium, an excellent source of protein, and is packed full of vitamins and minerals. Because of its long ripening time, Parmesan is easily and quickly digested even by the lactose intolerant. But it doesn’t meet the strict requirements of a vegan diet.
Dirty Work in the Dairy
In 1996, the European Union granted both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO) status. What this means is that, for the product to carry those two names, it must be made by traditional methods within the specific area around Parma and Reggio. Many other cheeses, like Roquefort, Stilton, and Gouda, carry the same designation.
The PDO status only applies within the European Union, which is why food companies elsewhere sell a product called “Parmesan” that isn’t Parmesan.
Larry Olmstead is the author of the 2016 book Real Food/Fake Food. He writes that the stuff that comes in a cardboard tubes with a green label that calls itself “100% Parmesan” is not: “It’s far enough from the real thing that Kraft was legally forced to stop selling its cheese labeled Parmesan in Europe,” where it’s called parmasello.
A bigger problem is that fake Parmigiano-Reggiano is sold in supermarkets and specialty stores all over the world. Olmstead writes that “Many of these imitators are produced here in the U.S. or South America, especially Argentina, and come with names such as Parmesan, Parmigiana, Parmesana, Parmabon, Real Parma, Parmezan, Parmezano and my all-time favorite, Permesansan (really).”
When people eat the real thing they are consuming an entirely natural whole food, this is not the case with counterfeit parmesan. As Lydia Mulvany reported for Bloomberg News, Food and Drug Administration officials got a surprise when they visited Castle Cheese Inc., in rural Pennsylvania in 2012. The company “was doctoring its 100 percent real parmesan with cut-rate substitutes and such fillers as wood pulp and distributing it to some of the country’s biggest grocery chains.”
Bloomberg went on to investigate and found the adulteration of cheese marketed as Parmesan is quite common, something that is confirmed by the people who make the authentic item.
Nicola Bertinelli is president of the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium. She says that out of every 10 wheels of Parmesan sold in the world, only one is the genuine article.
- Back in the days when the Pope and Henry VIII were still pals, the pontiff sent the king a gift of 100 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
- In 2017, the giant retailer Costco caused a bit of a stir when it sold 72-pound wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano for $900 each. That was enough to make 2,160 servings of mac and cheese. At $12.50 a pound, this was a great deal. Higher-end cheeses sell for astronomical prices. For example, Pule cheese comes from Serbia and is made of donkey milk. It can sell for $1,000 a pound.
- Because it is a pure product of high nutritional value, Parmigiano-Reggiano is sent aloft to feed both American and Russian astronauts.
- “Parmesan or Parmigiano Reggiano if You Want to be Fancy.” The Cheese Store, undated.
- “Italy’s Practically Perfect Food.” Amanda Ruggeri, BBC Travel, January 28, 2019.
- “The Parmesan Cheese You Sprinkle on Your Penne Could Be Wood.” Lydia Mulvany, Bloomberg News, February 16, 2016.
- “Costco Is Selling a 72-Pound Wheel of Cheese for $900 - and it’s a Good Deal!” Jeanette Settembre, MarketWatch, August 3, 2017.
- “Most Parmesan Cheeses In America Are Fake, Here’s Why.” Larry Olmstead, Forbes, November 12, 2012.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor