The Emilia-Romagna region of Italy has a highly diversified economy and is also responsible for the country’s largest output from an agricultural sector. A recent trip to the city of Parma would be amiss without a visit to one of the dairies or caseificio producing parmegiano-regiano cheese.
Staying in Bologna provided an easy departure point with access to smaller towns in the region such as Parma and Modena via a Regionale train in less than one hour. I boarded the train in the early hours of the day for our scheduled tour. The meeting point would be Stazione di Parma where Davide (our guide) would meet us with our bicycles.
Our group of four made the fairly uneventful ride on mostly flat surface to the CPL (Consorzzio Produttori Latte) factory just on the outskirts of Parma of about twenty minutes. Favourable to our ride was that Parma like many cities in Europe appears to be investing in dedicated bicycle lanes. In these area there are several factories which produce and sell the cheese under the ‘Parmegiano Reggiano’ brand.
We arrived a little later and were not able to see the milk being poured into the boilers however our guide Davide, explained to us that milk is brought from various farms around the area collected in the morning and the previous night.
The milk will be overnight in large open tanks which allows the cream to come to the surface and the skimmed milk keeps at the bottom. The milk is then pumped into the boilers until they are half full, the half is filled with whole milk. The cream is used for other products such as butter.
After the boilers are filled the heating process commences using steam. Rennet which is an enzyme found in the stomach lining of calves which helps to separate milk into solid curds and liquid whey. As the heating continues, the curd is fragmented into using a tool known as the ‘spino’ which looks like a much larger egg whisker.
Cooking continues gradually until the boiler reaches a temperature of 55° C with the cheese master keeping a close watch on the temperature gauges which are fixed next to each boiler. The milk is hot but with time the cheesemaster has learnt to draw his hand through it and assess the texture. If he is satisfied, cooking will stop with two types of cheeses available from each boiler.
At this stage is quite heavy and requires the strength of at least two men who will raise the mass carefully and pass a cheesecloth under. The cheesecloth is tied to a steel support so that the excess liquid can drain off back into the boiler.
If the mass is too large, a knife is used to cut into two pieces. It is then placed into an acrylic mold from which it will begin to take its shape as it slowly drains and only the solid material is left. There enough and boilers to produce 34 discs of cheese per day.
An employee lifts and places a heavy mass to accelerate the removal of liquids from the mass. With nowhere to go, the liquid drains to the floor. Within the mold and running along it is placed a plastic identifier strip with the factory’s unique serial number and production date allowing its origin to be traced back to the factory.
After the disc of cheese has rested in the mold for several days and the liquid has drained away, it is then placed into a salt bath for another 20 days. This bath brings out the flavour in the cheese while at the same time undegoing a curing process as salt permeates through it.
The salinity of the bath ensures that no bacteria are able to grow. Testament to this were flies and other insects that were floating in the bath. The cheese masters are so convinced by their process that they claimed not have known the last time the tanks had been drained and filled again.
As the days pass, the texture and color of wheel changes by taking on a more yellowish hue. After the required time has passed, the wheel is removed from the bath and placed in a grated steel wheel from which it will continue to dry. Finally, the grated steel wheels are removed and the wheels are placed on a wooden support built for the purpose and stacked 20 units high in a cold room.
The process is not over and this is where further varieties of parmegiano reggiano are derived based on an aging principle. As the wheels of cheese dry, a mouldy crust forms on the circumference of the wheel.
This mouldy outer covering is both essential and dangerous for too much of the mould could penetrate the inside of wheel and destroy the cheese. A specially conceived machine sands off the mould too keep it from growing too intensely.
The cheesemaster, a large stouty Italian man present on the day of our visit showed us how each wheel would be evaluated for quality. By knocking the wheel of cheese with a steel hammer and based on how hollow or full the perceived sound was, he would guage the quality of the aging process.
After the tour was concluded we treated with a sample of the final Parmegiano Reggiano as it is available to the public. The aging is general separated along 12, 24 and 36 months periods however walking on the streets of Bologna I found that it was not unusual to find aged for as long as 40 months.
Naturally, the longer the cheese has aged the more expensive it is. However, an older cheese does not necessarily indicate a tastier cheese and I would consider it very much an acquired taste.