A Parmesan Primer
One of the most familiar of Italian ingredients is Parmesan cheese. People add it to everything to achieve authentic Italian flavor. And in all too many cases, that means reaching for the green package deceptively labeled “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese.”
Give me just a minute here while I weep.
Okay, let me break this to you gently, friends: the dry, desiccated, flavorless, sawdust-like substance in those containers bears about as much resemblance to real Parmesan cheese as a hippopotamus does to a ballerina. And I use that analogy precisely because Walt Disney put hippos in tutus for “Fantasia” to exemplify the absurd. Authentic Parmesan cheese is a time-honored artisinal product. The mass-produced processed crap in a can is a hippo in a tutu. You can dress it up and make it dance, but it's still a clumsy imitation.
About eight hundred years ago, Benedictine and Cistercian monks living in the Enza Valley in north central Italy drained some swampland between the towns of Parma and Reggio. They set some cattle to grazing there and soon discovered that cheese made from the rich milk of those cows was absolutely delicious. So delicious, in fact, that the monks became quite prosperous selling it to wealthy customers all over northern Italy. By the early 14th century, Parmesan cheese had made it over the mountains to Tuscany, where ships departing from Pisa and Livorno carried it to other Mediterranean ports. Giovanni Boccaccio spoke of it in his most famous work, “The Decameron”: “In a town called Bengodi… there was a mountain made up completely of shaved Parmesan cheese.” In this imaginary place, cooks rolled macaroni down the mountain of cheese in order to cover it with the snowy goodness. The cheese became popular in the port city of Genoa, where its rich taste and high nutrient value made it a staple for sea voyages. In the first recorded reference to Parmesan, written in 1254, a noble woman from Genoa traded her house for the guarantee of an annual supply of fifty-three pounds of cheese produced in Parma.
The monks called the cheese by its Latin name, “caseus Parmensis”, which roughly translates to “cheese of Parma.” It was called “Pramsàn” in the local dialect,“Parmesano” in Italian, and the French dubbed it “Parmesan.” Today, it is known as Parmigiano-Reggiano, and it is often referred to as the “King of Cheeses.”
There are only three things that go into Parmigiano-Reggiano: unpasteurized milk, natural rennet, and salt. That's it. No additives, preservatives, or any other chemical or artificial substance.
The making of Parmigiano-Reggiano is a process which begins with the evening collection of milk from cows that are fed a diet of grasses and hay from the approved production area. (More on that in a minute.) The milk rests overnight in metal trays, allowing the cream to rise to the surface. In the morning, the cream is skimmed and whole milk from the morning milking is added to the skimmed. Then the milk is gently heated in large vats and some whey from the previous day's production is stirred in. This starts the acidification of the milk. Next, natural calf's rennet is added as a coagulant, and curds begin to form in about twenty minutes. Using a spino, a tool that resembles a large balloon whisk, the curds are broken into pieces the approximate size of a grain of rice. The heat gets turned up a little and the mixture is cooked until it reaches 131°F, after which the heat is turned on and off over about an hour's time. During this process, the curds sink to the bottom of the vat and form a spongy mass. The mass is lifted with a long wooden paddle and divided into two roughly equal parts. Each part is individually wrapped in muslin and hung from poles to allow drainage of excess liquid. The liquid, whey, is collected and either used in the next day's processing or is fed to the local pigs that become prosciutto di Parma. Once the cheeses have dried a bit, they are transferred to round, straight-sided wooden forms. Here a scannable – and completely edible – casein plaque is placed on the top of each cheese. This plaque is for traceability, containing all the pertinent information about the cheese. As liquid continues to drain, the cheese is frequently turned and lightly weighted, but never pressed. Now a plastic insert is placed between the mold and the still-malleable cheese. This insert is a series of pin dots that spell out the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano.” It also contains the producer's code and the date of production. This information is imprinted all around the outside of every wheel of authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano and serves as the consumer's guarantee of authenticity. If you don't see the dots, it's not the real thing. Next the cheeses are placed in a brining tank, where they remain soaking in a sea-salt solution for about twenty-four days. Then they go to curing rooms, where they remain for at least one year, during which time they are wiped, brushed, and turned every ten days.
By law, production is restricted to the Provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna (but only the area west of the river Reno), Modena, and in the Lombardian city of Mantova, but only in the area to the south of river Po. The cheese is afforded Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO, status. (This translates to DOP – Denominazione di Origine Protetta – in Italian.)
Here's where we get into a little trouble. Shakespeare asks, “What's in a name?” Well, in Europe and under European law, the word “Parmesan” can only be used in relation to Parmigiano-Reggiano. (Kraft has to call its crap in a can “Parmasello” in Europe.) In other places, most notably in America, these restrictions don't apply. Here in the land of cheap imitations, you could pass a piece of shoe leather over a wedge of cheese, grind it up, and call it “Parmesan” and nobody would be the wiser. For all I know, that may be precisely what they do.
In America, as long as your cheese A) is made of cow's milk, B) is cured for 10 months or more, C) contains no more than 32% water, and D) has no less than 32% milkfat in its solids, you can call it “Parmesan.” And if your pig has babies in a doghouse, you can call them puppies. You can add potassium sorbate – that's a preservative salt – and cellulose powder to your “cheese” and still call it “Parmesan.” Nobody cares. By the way, cellulose is an anti-caking agent made from plant fiber, the most common source of which is wood fiber. So, yes, you really are eating cheese-flavored sawdust.
I know, I know......there are shakers full of the stuff on the table of every Italian restaurant in America. But, hey, those places also sell spaghetti and meatballs – a decidedly non-Italian dish – to people who don't know any better, so why not? Why not pour fake Italian cheese over a fake Italian dish? It's the American way.
Okay, I'm being harsh. Truth be told, there are some pretty good domestic “Parmesan” cheeses being produced in America, especially in Wisconsin, a place that knows a thing or two about cheese. BelGioioso and Sargento both make a decent Parmesan – if you're not really picky. I hate to say it this way, but if I'm cooking for a large group of people who likely wouldn't know the difference anyway – the same people who order spaghetti and meatballs – I'll save a few ducats and use the cheap domestic stuff. My family, friends, and special clients, however, always get the real thing.
So how do you tell the difference? Simple. The real stuff sells for about twenty dollars a pound. The fake stuff goes for about twenty pounds to the dollar. Okay, it's not quite that extreme, but, really, folks, do you honestly expect that the stuff you buy in a plastic can for $3.98 is in any way an authentic Italian ingredient? Really?
Do yourself a flavor: find a cheesemonger somewhere – like at Whole Foods, maybe – who will let you sample and compare. Get some real Parmigiano, some domestic Parmesan, and some grated crap in a can. Taste all three and if you can't tell the difference, you need a tongue transplant.
I loved watching Giada de Laurentiis when she was filming in Italy. There in her kitchen was a whole frickin' wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. That's about eighty pounds of cheese at roughly twenty dollars a pound. Do the math. And I love it when Mario Batali hollows out a wheel of Parmigiano and uses it as a bowl for some spectacular dish. C'mon! Get real! I buy Parmigiano-Reggiano in one-pound chunks and I try to find it on sale. I scored a deal the other day: ten dollars a pound. Woo-hoo! It's not a cheap ingredient. But it is the best one for real, authentic Italian flavor, so splurge a little.
I use a Microplane grater to create mountains of snowy white deliciousness for pasta dishes. (Kinda like the people in Bengodi.) I use a vegetable peeler to shave thin slices over salads and other dishes. And I stick the rinds in the freezer and pull 'em out when I'm making soup. Nothing matches the deep, rich, slightly salty flavor of real Parmigiano-Reggiano. Nothing.
And, by the way, the stuff they so generously grate over your plate at Olive Garden is not Parmigiano-Reggiano or even “Parmesan;” it's Romano.
So now you know. When it comes to real Italian flavor, you can spend a little more and use real Italian cheese, you can scrimp up a bit and use fake Italian cheese, or you can scrape the bottom of the barrel and eat cheese-flavored sawdust. The choice is yours.
FYI, you can buy the real thing at Whole Foods, The Fresh Market, Trader Joe's, Kroger, Publix, Harris-Teeter and other higher-end chain groceries with “specialty cheese” departments. You can even get it at Walmart, Sam's and Costco. It's not all that hard to find, so go find some today. Make your mouth happy.