Cheese School - Parmigiano Reggiano
PARMIGIANO REGGIANO VS. PARMESAN
What wouldn't be improved with a little Parmigiano Reggiano - tomatoey pasta, crisp green salads, fluffy eggs: no brainers. Simple grilled vegetables are taken up 3 notches covered with shards of Parm. Throw the rinds into your soup stock for an extra burst of rich umami. Even gelato is possible with the King of Cheeses, though maybe you should leave that to the gelatarias in Italy. So, what is real Parmigiano and what is parmesan? Parmigiano Reggiano is 1000+ years of tradition while Parmesan is an imposter created by Kraft and made by a hordes of industrial food manufacturers. Though not all Parmigiano is even equal these days. Like most old world products industrialization and global markets have had a toll and most Parmigiano is now made by very large companies, farmstead production is limited to 10% of the total producers (it is even less when you look at the actual number of wheels). We pay alot more for small producer cheese but we are happy to do so because keeping these small farmstead producers alive is what gets us up every day!
So what is Parmesan?
Parmesan is so far from Parmigiano Reggiano and the complexities of flavor therein not to mention centuries of traditional cheesemaking, that these two should not even be uttered in the same sentence. In the U.S. there are hardly any regulations on what the word “Parmesan” can be applied to (even though the rest of the world outlawed using the label “Parmesan” on anything other than real Parmigiano Reggiano in 2008). This includes powdered cheese product in a can with ingredients including cellulose and potassium sorbate.
What makes Parmigiano Special?
Compare that with Italy where there are a limited number of producers (no more than 400) who are legally allowed to make Parmigiano Reggiano, and who are also regularly visited by The Consortium to make sure that the cheeses they are producing fall in line with the VERY specific rules that allow the cheese to be labeled as authentic Parmigiano Reggiano. The cheese can only be made in a carefully designated 10,000 sq kilometer area of the mountainous region of Emilia Romagna. The cows can only eat local grasses and forage. Every part of the cheesemaking process is controlled all the way through the aging. In fact, if your wheels don’t pass muster with the Consortium, they can be de-rinded, which means the identifying vertical stencil of “Parmigiano Reggiano” on the outside of the wheels is removed, and you cannot sell your cheese on the Parmigiano market.
The result of all this obsessive control: a magical combination flavors, an indispensable umami, an almost indescribable visceral reaction when you taste it that goes up your spine and tellls you, THIS IS PARMIGIANO REGGIANO. It’s so dense with flavor, you only need a little bit to taste the spectrum of grassy fields, toasted nuts and tropical fruits. It’s got that tongue warming sharpness and crystalline texture that can only come with years of careful maturation.
We’re obviously not here to bad mouth hard working cheesemakers in Wisconsin. But it seems like such a waste of time, milk, and effort just to make a cheaper substitute for such a beautiful, authentic expression of Italian terroir, cheesemaking brilliance and legacy. Yes, real Parmigiano Reggiano is more expensive than those triangles of dubious origin in the cold case. But spending your money on something that’s just a sad replication doesn’t seem worth it.
The Parmigiano Reggiano we import at Chef Collective is very special and we are very particular about it. Our standard Parmigiano Reggiano is aged for 28-32 months and produced by Latteria Mariani just outside of Parma; they’ve been making their superb wheels since 1941. We select wheels that are made with spring and fall milk, when the temps are lower which leads to less stressed cows and better milk, ie. when flavor is as it’s peak and it’s qualities are best for making Parmigiano. During the lengthy aging process, flavors of ripe strawberry, pineapple and pear develop, with lovely undertones of roasted hazelnuts and buttery brioche, even at 32 months, these wheels could age for much longer, they still have a beautiful richness thanks to the cheesemaker being generous with the amount of cream that is added to the vat.
What about vacuum sealed chunks of real Parmigiano? They are ok, but they aren’t as good as it gets! Cheese doesn’t age once you cut it, and it doesn’t get better from that moment on. Every wheel of cheese we cut at Chef Collective is cut the day we send it out and it makes a huge difference that you can taste. This is why precut cheese is cheaper than cheese at a local cheese shop. For our Parmigiano we crack our wheels the old fashioned way with a special set of knives specially designed centuries ago for splitting the massive wheels. Every day we split new wheels, so your little chunk of cheese heaven will be full of bright fresh flavor!
How do I store Parmigiano Reggiano?
The secret to storing all your hard cheeses is air, keep it away, once you open up the package, wrap it tighly in...Plastic Wrap! Why not cheese paper or cheese bags, because cheese paper allows cheese to breathe, the rind on a chunk of Parmigiano isn't active, so it doesn't need to breathe, what you need to worry about it is drying out, if you Parmigiano is allowed to dry out, the less you will taste those volatile and oh so delicious flavor notes. So keep it wrapped tightly and use it often, and buy it often so that you are always getting a fresh chunk! If you aren't going through pounds a week, its ok, it will last for 4 weeks in the fridge( if tightly wrapped) without a ton of flavor degradation and if you forget to wrap it and it dries out, don't toss it, incorporate into sauces, grate in bigger chunks or toss into your stock for an added boost of umami!