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Exploring Parmesan: The World's Favorite Cheese

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.


If anyone ever tells you that you put too much Parmesan cheese on your pasta, stop talking to them. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.

— Anon.

A Story, Within a Story, Within a Story

The First Story

On January 3, 1959, Alaska became the 49th state of the Union. Eight years later, North America’s largest oil field was discovered on the Arctic Coast at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Construction of the Alaska Pipeline began in the winter of 1973. The pipeline was completed in 1977. During that four-year period, my brother Lee worked for the Alyeska Pipeline Service as a cook.

Location of Prudhoe Bay

Location of Prudhoe Bay

The Second Story

Lee invited our dad to fly up to visit him for a week. Daddy was absolutely in Heaven—a chance to see his son again, an opportunity to visit a new (for him) part of the world, and, at the age of 70, flying for the very first time. (This was before there were bucket lists).

As the “camp cook” Lee not only wanted to show his dad the sights, he also wanted to show him his skills as a cook. The crews on the pipeline worked hard and wanted hearty, substantial meals—no tofu on this trip. Steaks were a given, baked hams, tender beef roasts, and then one evening Lee put together an Italian meal—a sumptuous dinner of spaghetti and meatballs—toothsome al dente pasta with a rich sauce of slow-simmered tomatoes and garlic, topped with a fresh grating of real Parmesan cheese.

Prudhoe Bay Facts

- It contains an estimated recoverable 10 billion barrels of oil.

- It's twice as large as any other oil field in North America.

- The pipeline was completed in 1977 at a cost of $7.7 billion.

- Oil flows through an 800-mile-long pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez.

A Postscript to Story No. 2

Now, bear in mind, Mom (bless her soul), tried her best, but in her kitchen spaghetti meant a half-pound of ground beef stretched to the max with one onion and two cans of tomato sauce atop pasta that was al dente five or maybe 10 minutes ago.

When Daddy returned home he must have told Mom about the cheese. The next time we had spaghetti, there was the (infamous) dark green container of stinky, powdery (pretends-to-be) Parmesan.

Green-container powder might have sufficed in the 1970s, but it bears no resemblance to authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese created in the adjoining provinces of Parma and Reggio.

A sad plate of flabby spaghetti with red sauce

A sad plate of flabby spaghetti with red sauce

The Third Story (and Why You Are Reading This)

For this part of the story, we need to travel across soil and century to Italy, 1300 A.D. Today we know this area as Parma and Reggio Emilia. In the 12th century it was the heart of a Benedictine monk community where life was dedicated to worship, study, and self-subsistence. When not in prayer and devotion, the monks tended gardens and orchards, milled grain, baked bread, and raised livestock for meat and butter.

And, they were making cheese, but not just any cheese. The monks were using the milk of Vacche Rosso cows, cows grazing in the perfect climate that supports the lush grasses between the Rhine and Po Rivers. And the monks discovered a method to create a low moisture (grana) cheese that would not only keep well but would improve with age.

Today the process to create Parmigiano is the same as it was 800 years ago. The line between past and present is blurred as Casaros, cheese masters who know and understand the true craft of milk processing, use their hands as the monks did in centuries past.

They still use the milk from farms in this fertile, green area—about 4,000 of them today.

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No preservatives or chemical additives are used to hurry the process—only whey, natural rennet, and salt are blended with the milk.

The only significant change in technique from centuries past is that cows no longer graze in pastures. Instead, the grasses are grown and fed to them in barns; this insures careful food intake monitoring and thus, a consistent product.

A Perfect Land, With a Mountain of Parmesan

“Et eravi una montagna tutta di formaggio Parmigiano grattugiato, sopra la quale stavan genti, che niuna altra cosa facevan, che fare maccheroni e ravioli e cuocerli in brodo di capponi, e poi li gittavan quindi giù, e chi più ne pigliava, più se n’aveva”

“And there was a mountain all made of grated Parmesan cheese, on which people were standing who weren’t doing anything but making macaroni and ravioli, cooking them in capon stock and throwing them to the people below, and the more these people could catch the more they ate”—Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, 1351, describing the land of Bengodi, an imaginary land of good cheer and abundance.

And to ensure that this treasured product continues to be consistent, a consortium was established in 1934. This group brought all producers together to establish production standards and to safeguard and promote the name. Today all cheeses bearing the fire-brand mark Parmigiano Reggiano have been made according to the strict Disciplinare di Produzione (Production Specifications) and checked by the consortium’s experts. Only cheeses that pass inspection can be fire-branded.

A Short Course on How Parmigiano Is Made

Whole milk from the morning milking is blended with skimmed milk from the previous evening’s milking. (Even this skimming process is done naturally—the milk is held in vats and allowed to separate). The whole milk/skim milk blend is then pumped into copper-lined vats. Whey and rennet (natural products) are added, and the milk curdles and separates.

Fire is then brought into the picture; the copper vats are heated to 55°C and the cheese granules form and sink to the bottom of the vat. After resting for 30 minutes, the cheese is removed by the cheesemaker, divided in two, wrapped in muslin, and placed in a mold which gives it its final characteristic shape. It this point each wheel weighs about 100 pounds.

After two days, a plastic belt imprinted numerous times with the Parmigiano-Reggiano name, the plant's number, and month and year of production is put around the cheese. This imprint becomes a distinct and unique part of the cheese—a fingerprint. A brine bath of 20 to 25 days is next and then the slow aging process begins.

Parmigiano—Better With Age

The cheese wheels (each one made from 600 liters of milk) are laid out in long rows in the maturation rooms. The cheese is allowed to rest on wooden tables where the outside dries and forms a natural (perfectly edible) crust.

The story of Parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano) is long, spanning centuries, and slow, following the natural rhythm of the seasons. In fact, the minimum maturation time is twelve months, and only at this point can it be decided if each individual cheese is worthy of the name it was given at its birth.

  • Red Seal: Parmigiano-Reggiano matured for over 18 months. Has a rather strong milk flavor, with aromatic notes such as herbs, flowers, and fruits which make it ideal for snacks and aperitifs.
  • Silver Seal: Cheese matured for over 22 months, with decidedly stronger aromas. In these cheeses, the notes of fresh and citrus fruit can be tasted, along with a hint of nuts.
  • Gold Seal: Cheese matured for over 30 months. Has the most distinctive flavor and complex aromas. These cheeses have a deep straw color and develop delicious little protein crystals which crunch and, when bitten, provide an explosion of flavor.
Spring harvest pesto

Spring harvest pesto

Spring Harvest Pesto


  • 2 quarts stinging nettles, cooked per instructions and squeezed dry (to equal about 1 cup)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3/4 cup olive oil


  1. First, you need to wear protective gloves when harvesting nettles. Not canvas or cotton—something non-absorbent such as vinyl or cowhide. Snip just the top part (or first three levels) of leaves and place in a clean bucket. Keep clipping until your bucket is full. Bring your harvest into the kitchen.
  2. Next, bring a large pot of water to boil.
  3. Don a clean pair of rubber gloves and place your nettles into the kitchen sink. Run a bit of water over your harvest and then begin plucking leaves from the plants. Place the leaves in a colander and discard the stems.
  4. Scoop the leaves into the boiling pot of water. Set your timer for 3 minutes, and stir the pot once or twice so that all of the leaves are submerged into the boiling water.
  5. After 3 minutes drain the cooked nettle leaves into a colander and let cool. When cool enough to handle, squeeze the water out of the cooked nettles (yes, they are safe to touch!). Give them a rough chop on your cutting board and then toss them into the food processor. Now you're ready to make pesto.
  6. Place the prepared nettles, walnuts, garlic, and Parmesan in a food processor. Whir until finely chopped. While the blade is moving slowly pour in the olive oil.
  7. Stop and taste your pesto. You'll probably need to add a bit of salt. If the mixture seems too thick, add some water (about 2 tablespoons).
Parmesan crisps

Parmesan crisps

Parmesan Crisps (Frico)

Parmesan crisps are the easiest snack/garnish/appetizer on planet Earth. All you need is Parmesan cheese—that's it. They make a wonderful accompaniment to a fresh green salad. Or, imagine them with a rich bowl of Tuscan bean soup. Perhaps you could use them in place of the traditional grilled cheese sandwich with your homemade tomato soup. Or place them on your wine-party cheese board.

Zucchini fritters frying in the skillet

Zucchini fritters frying in the skillet

Parmesan Zucchini Fritters


  • 2 cups grated zucchini, (see note below)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil

Note: When grating the zucchini for this recipe, I suggest that you remove and discard the seeds. That seedy interior part of the squash tends to be very wet.


  1. First, prepare your zucchini—cut the stem and blossom end off of your zucchini. Slice horizontally into two halves. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon and discard the seeds.
  2. Shred the remaining zucchini—one large squash should yield about 2 cups.
  3. Place the grated zucchini in a bowl. Add the eggs, Parmesan, parsley, flour, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine
  4. Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Spoon zucchini batter into pan (about 1/4 cup for each fritter). Sauté for about 5 minutes. Carefully turn over and continue cooking over medium heat about another 5 minutes or until centers are cooked through and edges are crispy.
Waste not want not white bean escarole soup

Waste not want not white bean escarole soup

White Bean and Escarole Soup

This rich, savory soup is obviously garnished with a fine dusting of Parmesan shreds. But that's not all—the broth of this white bean escarole soup is exactly what a frugal Italian cook would have created in the home kitchen. It's flavored with the rind of a wheel of Parmesan. Yes, that part that many of us discard should never be thrown away. Save your Parm rinds in a freezer-safe bag and bring them out whenever you desire a homey pot of comfort.

© 2015 Linda Lum

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