Rankings chase each other, and they are not always reliable, but one thing is for sure, Parmigiano Reggiano PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) is in the Olympus of the most loved and sold Italian cheeses in the world, if not the one with the absolute primacy.
It is no coincidence that outside Europe (here regulations on Protected Designation of Origin products are in force) so-called ‘Parmesan’, overseas imitations of our Parmigiano Reggiano PDO, have emerged. Cheeses that have nothing to do with the thousand-year-old tradition of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and, of course, with its unique link to the production territory.
Parmigiano Reggiano in history
The tradition of this much-loved hard cheese dates to the Middle Ages. In fact, the intention of the Cistercian and Benedictine monks was to create a cheese that would last a long time, in large wheels. The salt was that of the Salsomaggiore salt mines, the milk that of the cows reared in the granges. The fame of Parmigiano quickly spread, and soon its exportation reached all of Europe, so much so that the first commercial protection measures were necessary (as early as the 17th century) compared to other cheeses.
First it was the Duke of Parma Ranuccio I Farnese who made the designation of origin official with a deed of 1612. In this document, the places from where the ‘di Parma’ cheese had to come from were highlighted for the first time. This is, to all intents and purposes, an anticipation of the Protected Designation of Origin.
Today, just as then, Parmigiano Reggiano PDO is among the world’s most loved and counterfeited cheeses.
The Processing of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO
Let’s start with the basics. Only five provinces are home to the milk that originates Parmigiano Reggiano PDO: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the left of the Reno River and Mantua to the right of the Po River. And these are the same provinces where processing takes place, according to very stringent regulations that stipulate, for example, the controlled feeding of the animals, no use of silage fodder, fermented feed, and animal meal. All processing steps are part of a specification drawn up by the Protection Consortium.
Some 550 litres of milk are needed to make a single wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO. And it is only thanks to the rennet and whey graft that coagulation takes place, in a completely natural way. From each cauldron, after the milk has been cooked, twin wheels are obtained, ready to be placed in the cheese moulds.
Fundamental for the recognition and tracking of the cheeses is the branding phase. In fact, each wheel is branded with the production references (month and year), the dairy’s serial number and the unmistakable dotted Parmigiano Reggiano PDO inscription. To all intents and purposes, this is a true identity card.
The last step before maturing is salting, which is done by osmosis, that is, by immersing the wheels in a saturated solution of water and salt.
Among the records of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO is that of the minimum maturing time, the longest of all PDOs: 12 months. At the end of this first year, each wheel is examined, and it is only at this point that it is confirmed (or not) whether it can maintain the PDO. From here, the cheeses that have passed the test can either go on sale or extend the maturing process to 24, 26, 40 months or longer.
Parmigiano Reggiano PDO on the table
There are many reasons for calling Parmigiano Reggiano PDO the king of cheeses. Among them, undoubtedly is the versatility on the table.
For example, it is hard to think of an aperitif without serving a few shavings. They can be enjoyed plain, paired with both sparkling and still white wines. Or to be served with fresh raw vegetables, but also with fresh fruit in season, or dehydrated fruit in the case of a longer maturation period, with a stronger flavour. An excellent pairing in this case is also with fruit mostarda that is not too spicy, so as not to overpower the flavour.
Parmigiano Reggiano PDO is a staple in pasta dishes, best when freshly grated. And when the piece is finished, you keep the rind, to add when cooking to soups and vegetable crèmes.
Against any prejudice that bans combinations between cheese and fish, the king of cheeses is excellent served in petals on fish carpaccio, as well as on meat carpaccio and roast beef, possibly accompanied by the pungency of rocket.
Above 36 months, the aroma of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO becomes stronger, perfect to combine with a few drops of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena or Reggio Emilia.