(This post is one of several dealing with real Italian ingredients. For more information on identifying authentic Italian food products, visit http://www.trueitalianfood.it.)
There are more than 400 varieties of cheese produced across the Italian peninsula. At least 34 have been accorded DOP* status and several are commonly available on American supermarket shelves. King among these cheeses is Parmigiano-Reggiano, usually referred to by the common appellation “Parmesan.”
How can you even consider Italian food without Parmesan cheese, right? And to 99.6% of Americans, this means reaching for the grated stuff in the green cans.
According to the biggest manufacturer of this cheese-like substance, their product is “100% real grated Parmesan. No fillers. No fillers means we use only real Parmesan cheese, not imitations or substitutes. Aged 6 months.” But then you take a look at the ingredients listed elsewhere on the label and you find “Parmesan Cheese (Pasteurized Part-Skim Milk, Salt, Less than 2% of Enzymes, Cheese Culture, Cellulose Powder to Prevent Caking, Potassium Sorbate to Protect Flavor).” This stuff is not even remotely related to authentic Italian cheese.
What Americans refer to as “Parmesan cheese” is produced only in a specific area of Italy; the area around Parma. The word “Parmesan” is actually the French word for that area. It is also the generic term under which cheap imitation cheeses may legally be sold in the United States and elsewhere.
The only true, authentic, Italian “Parmesan cheese” is Parmigiano-Reggiano. It is a DOP designated product produced only in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and certain restricted areas of Bologna and Lombardia. It is made from raw, whole cow's milk rather than the “pasteurized part-skim” product used by cheap imitators. The only additive permitted in Parmigiano-Reggiano is salt. There are no chemical preservatives employed to “protect flavor” or “prevent caking.” It must be aged for a minimum of 12 months. The really good stuff is aged from 24 to 36 months. So how does the crap in a can proclaim itself as “real Parmesan” and then admit in the next line that it is only aged for 6 months?
Now, real Parmigiano-Reggiano is considered a “part skim milk” product because of the way it is processed. The cows are milked twice a day; morning and evening. The evening's milk is left in large shallow vats to allow the cream to separate before being mixed with the whole milk from the following morning's milking. Since this natural separation process constitutes a form of “skimming,” it may be said that the resulting product is a “part skim mixture.” But that's where the resemblance ends.
Cow's that produce Parmigiano-Reggiano are completely grass fed. No silage or concentrated feed of any kind. Although the milk from these cows is heated during processing, it is not pasteurized. Only natural whey culture and calf rennet are allowed as starters. American cows eat a steady diet of processed feed and cheese imitators use manufactured enzymes and non-animal rennet.
The curds for real Parmigiano-Reggiano are hand cut to a fine, rice-like consistency, allowing for more effective drainage. Imitation Parmesan is moister because the machine-cut curds tend to be larger and drain less effectively. Whereas real Parmigiano-Reggiano is allowed to drain and compact naturally, American Parmesan is mechanically pressed.
As noted, true Parmigiano-Reggiano is brined in a Mediterranean sea salt solution. The cheese is produced in wheels that weigh approximately 80 pounds. American imitation cheese usually comes in 20 pound wheels. Because the size difference matters in terms of salt saturation during the brining process, real Parmigiano-Reggiano contains up to two-thirds less salt than its cheap imitators.
Finally, the cheese is aged. The aging process reduces moisture levels and allows the cheese's distinctive crystalline structure and crumbly texture to form. By law, Parmigiano-Reggiano must be aged for at least a year before it can be sold, and it is usually aged for 24 months. Some varieties are aged for as long as three years. Imitation cheese is often aged for just six to ten months.
Cheap Parmesan is usually a milky white color. Real Parmigiano-Reggiano is yellowish or straw-colored. The real cheese is dry and hard textured and possesses a distinctive buttery, nutty, fruity flavor. Cheap processed cheeses are often moist and slightly bitter.
The rind on each and every wheel of good quality Parmigiano-Reggiano is imprinted with the words “ Parmigiano-Reggiano” as well as the production plant's number and the month and year of production. The Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano allows lesser quality cheeses to be sold, but the markings are either struck through with lines or crosses or are removed altogether. The seal of the Denominazione di Origine Protetta and either the seal or the words Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano appear on any and all authentic Italian cheeses. If you don't see 'em, you're buying a cheap substitute.
The real stuff doesn't come in a can, it comes in a wedge, which usually weighs in at around a pound. Look for the seals and, more importantly since some stores hand cut wedges from whole wheels, look for some part of the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” on the rind. They have to be there in order for the cheese to be the real thing.
Besides Parmigiano-Reggiano, several other authentic Italian cheeses are available in supermarkets including Asiago, Gorgonzola, Pecorino Romano, Provolone, Fontina, Taleggio, and Grana Padano. These are all DOP cheeses and should be identified as such. Many are domestically produced, so examine the labels carefully.
Asiago is a cow's milk cheese produced in the town of Asiago, province of Vicenza, in Italy's Veneto region. Known as “Asiago d'Allevo,” it assumes different characteristics according to its aging. The youngest, freshest variety, Asiago Pressato (pressed Asiago), is aged only 4 to 6 weeks and has a soft, elastic rind and a sweet, delicate flavor. Asiago Mezzano (middle Asiago) is aged from 3 to 8 months and is a compact, straw-colored cheese with a sweetish taste. Asiago Vecchio (old Asiago) ages for 9 to18 months and is a hard, straw colored cheese with a slightly bitter taste. Asiago Stravecchio (very-old Asiago) has been aged more than 18 months and is a very hard, grainy, amber-colored cheese with a bitter and spicy taste.
Pecorino cheese comes from sheep's milk, so if the package you're looking at says “moo,” put it back. There are several DOP protected varieties of Pecorino: Pecorino Toscano, Pecorino Siciliano, Pecorino Sardo, Pecorino di Filiano, and Pecorino Romano. By far the most common on American store shelves is Pecorino Romano. It has a dark straw-colored rind with a white or light straw-colored interior. It is a fragrant cheese with a slightly spicy flavor.
Gorgonzola is Italy's most popular blue cheese. Produced in specified areas of Piemonte and Lombardia, Gorgonzola is made from either cow or goat milk and is aged for 3 or 4 months. The crumbly, white cheese with a blue-veined pattern gets firmer and develops more flavor as it ripens, ranging from soft to firm and from mild to sharp. The goat's milk variety can also be quite salty.
There are two protected varieties of Provolone, Provolone Valpadana and Provolone del Monaco. These varieties come in dolce (mild or sweet) and piccante (spicy) forms. A semi-hard cow's milk cheese, it is a light straw-color and sometimes contains small aeration holes.
Fontina is a cow's milk cheese that has been produced in the Aosta Valley near the Italian Alps since the 12th century. It has a thin, compact brown rind with a soft, elastic interior containing characteristic aeration holes scattered throughout. Fontina is a rich, ivory-colored cheese with a sweet, delicate flavor.
Tallegio is a semi-soft, washed rind cheese produced originally in the caves of Val Tallegio. It is an aromatic cheese with a surprisingly mild flavor that finishes with an unusual fruity tang. The thin rind is a rosy color and is studded with salt crystals. The cheese itself varies in color from white to straw yellow with a few tiny aeration holes.
Grana Padano is often found on store shelves and is frequently substituted for Parmigiano-Reggiano because of its similar flavor and texture. It is produced in a similar manner but over a much wider area of Italy. It is a hard cheese made from cow's milk. It has a grainy texture – hence the “Grana” portion of its name – that breaks off into flakes when cut. It has a fragrant aroma and a milder, more delicate flavor than Parmigiano-Reggiano. Grana Padano is sold in three different ripening stages. Grana Padano is aged 9 to 16 months and has creamy texture that is only slightly grainy. Grana Padano oltre 16 mesi is aged, as the name implies, for more than 16 months. It is somewhat crumblier with a more pronounced taste. Grana Padano Riserva is aged for more than 20 months and is grainy, crumbly and quite full flavored. It is considered closest in character to its more noted cousin.
Let's talk about mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. All mozzarella cheese is not created equal. And it's not all created Italian. If you want real, authentic Italian mozzarella, look for the only one that is DOP protected, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana. Good luck. It's not impossible to find, but since there are not a lot of herds of water buffalo grazing in American pastures, most of what passes for mozzarella in this country comes from cows.
Technically, this makes it a fiore di latte, but it falls under the general category of mozzarella. There are some good fresh cow's milk mozzarellas in supermarkets, but they are not authentic Italian. One thing that is most definitely not in any way authentic is the hard, waxy blocks of part-skim “mozzarella” cheese-like product found on store shelves and its packaged shredded counterpart, usually found hanging above the blocks. But it's what most Americans have come to accept as mozzarella, so there it is. As I said, I have found Mozzarella di Bufala in the supermarket, but it's rare. If you have to substitute, at least use a good, fresh cow's milk mozzarella. It's the stuff that comes in moist little balls, not hard dry bricks.
Ricotta is made from the whey of either sheep, cow, water buffalo, or goat's milk and is generally the literally “recooked” byproduct of mozzarella production, so what you'll find on store shelves is usually closely related to whatever mozzarella is predominant there. Nearly all American ricotta is made from cow's milk. There are a couple of DOP ricottas – Ricotta di Bufala Compana and Ricotta Romana – but I've never seen any on common store shelves.
The supermarket where I do most of my shopping has both real Parmigiano-Reggiano and the cheap substitute. The real thing is three or four times as expensive, of course, but it's well worth the price. I never buy anything else. I've also found DOP Asiago, Grana Padano, and Pecorino Romano at my neighborhood grocery and I've seen Tallegio and Fontina in specialty shops. BUT – big “but” – they are usually mixed right in there with the domestically produced Italian looking stuff, so caveat emptor.
I was kind of taken to task the other day by a friend who accused me of being too “Italio-centric” in my outlook. “There's absolutely nothing wrong with Wisconsin cheese, you know. Just because it's Italian doesn't mean it's better.”
Quite right! But because it's made in Wisconsin specifically means that it's not Italian, and the point of the whole exercise is not to say that one is better than the other, but to ensure that consumers recognize the difference. As a native son of “America's Dairyland” I would be stripped of my foam-rubber cheese hat and banished to exile in Illinois if I dared even consider denigrating locally produced cheese! But even the most die-hard home-growner – or is that “home-groaner” – has to admit that chemically enhanced, industrially produced cheeses can't hold a candle to those that are artisan-made according to traditional methods. And that's the way most cheeses are still made in Italy. If you have one functioning taste bud in your mouth you can't possibly compare the crap in the green can to real Parmigiano-Reggiano. And even the best of the Wisconsin-made “Parmesans” tend to be pale and rubbery when compared to the real thing. Blame the FDA. Commercial American cheesemakers are forced to use pasteurized milk, and it – along with various production shortcuts – does make a difference in the finished product.
(Cue “The Star-Spangled Banner.”) So buy American! It's good stuff! The best stuff made by the best people on the planet, etc., etc. Never mind that American manufacturers exhibit what my friend calls “good old Yankee ingenuity” by wrapping their products not in red, white and blue to show their Yankee pride but in red, white and green to fool consumers into thinking they're buying an authentic Italian product. If the product is so superior, why not decorate it with American flags and call it “Madisonian” instead of “Parmesan?” I mean, really, what's so great about Parma?
Okay, so I'm exaggerating. But I hope you get the point. There's nothing wrong with domestically made products, but if you expect real Italian quality and real Italian flavor in the dishes you work so hard to prepare, you have to buy real Italian ingredients. Anything else is just a good substitute.
*[DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) and IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) are the Italian translations of the EU's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).]