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by Patricia Guy

From the pages of Epicurean All of us remember the parmesan cheese of our childhood. It came pre-grated in a green cardboard cylinder and it sat in the fridge for months until Mom decided to open another can of Spaghetti-Os. Come on, admit it. That was your introduction to parmesan, too. But we, and America, have grown-up. Gourmet shops are no longer restricted to the biggest cities and Italian restaurants now feature regional cuisines, not just Neapolitan classics. Since we are accustomed to exercising our palates and making discriminating choices, the time has come to take a more considered look at (and taste of) Parmigiano-Reggiano, a product which is light years away from parmesan cheese.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is a medium-fat cheese made partly from skimmed, unpasteurized cow's milk and is produced in a zone limited to the Provinces of Parma, Reggio-Emilia and Modena, and parts of the Provinces of Mantua and Bolgona in the Italian Region of Emlia-Romagna. No chemical preservatives or artificial additives are used in its preparation. Parmigiano-Reggiano, like fine wine, is a living product, capable of maturing and evolving in flavor.

Not just any cow can produce the protein-rich milk that goes into Parmigano-Reggiano. For this reason the Holstein Friesian breed, which has a similar genetic profile to the original - and now extinct - local breeds, was introduced to the zone some 15 years ago. Each of these cows produces around 10,000 litres of milk every year. They are fed on fresh fodder during the summer. During the winter months, some producers feed them grass which has been dehumidified in such as way as to retain the essential nutrients. "Because the cows are eating basically the same grass throughout the year, the flora in their stomachs is not altered," says Paolo Ballotta, manager of the Antica Latteria Ducale in the Province of Modena. "This is less stressful for the cows and provides us with a consistent quality-level of milk 365 days a year."

Parmigiano-Reggiano is the product of the sensibilities and sound judgement of the casaro (cheesemaker). There are no schools to teach this art; it requires long years of apprenticeship. "From the begining to the end of the process," says Paolo, "the casaro is contantly feeling the cheese's texture, gauging the consistency of the product. The casaro decides every phase of production with his fingertips."

Romano Fantini, the cheesemaker at Antica Latteria Ducale, has worked in dairies for twenty-two years, 5 years of which were spent apprenticed to a master cheesemaker. I asked Romano why he chose his career. "I was a waiter in a large hotel, then I met my wife," he smiles at Vilma who works alongside him. "And she lived in a little village without hotels. There was however, this work." Though Romano's career began by chance, it is clear that he now loves his job. He would have to: he works 365 days a year (yes, Easter and Christmas too) and produces six wheels of Parmigiano a day. Larger companies employ two or more cheesemakers who work in shifts.

Cheesemaking is an endless cycle, each step leads to the next. So before describing the first phase of actual production, we really must talk about whey, the liquid residue which separates from the curd during cheesemaking. A portion of each cheesemaking session's whey is held in a small temperature-controlled stainless steel tank. The heat keeps the lactic flora, which is crucial to the flavour of the resulting cheese, alive and healthy. The remaining whey is used to clean the premises and utensils. No detergents are used as they might taint the flavor of the product.

The master cheesemaker is on the job by around 6 a.m., when the morning's milk arrives. The preceding evening's milk has rested throughout the night in shallow stainless steel vats and has been partially skimmed. The milk from the evening and the morning milkings are then poured together into a funnel-shaped copper cauldron. Each cauldron contains around 1050 litres - enough to make two wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Warm whey is added to the cauldron and the milk is heated to around 33° C (91° F). The heat is then turned off and rennet (a natural extract found in the stomachs of calves) is added to curdle the milk. The casaro dips his hand into the coagulating milk and when it feels right to him (usually after 12 to 15 minutes), he plunges a round wire cage on a handle (a spino) into the cauldon and breaks up the curd. He then starts the automatic stirrer and heats the cauldron to around 49° C (120° F), The cheese is then left to settle.

Parmigiano Reggiano

Once the curds have collected in the bottom of the cauldron, the casaro raises the ball of cheese with a large wooden paddle and, with the help of his assistant, slips a piece of cloth under it and ties the ends of the fabric to a metal rod resting over the cauldron. The cheese, which at this point weighs about 82 kilos (181 pounds), stays in this sling for a little over 10 minutes. The casaro then saws it in half with a large spatula. He inserts another cloth and adroitly shifts the cheese until each piece is suspended in a sling. He pats and prods them until a rounded shape is attained and then lets them rest.

Still wrapped in cloth, the cheeses are transfered to teflon molds. The cloth wrapping helps to maintain warmth, as any drastic change in temperature would kill the bacilli. At this point the cheese tastes mildly of milk and is decidedly chewy.

After a few hours the cloth is removed and a stencil embossed with the words "Parmigiano-Regianno" is inserted between the cheese and the mold. When the cheeses have dried, they are put into saltwater-filled troughs where they remain for from 20 to 30 days. During this bath, a process of osmosis occurs whereby the cheese absorbs salt, and expells excess water. The cheese is then ready to be taken to the warehouse, which is kept at between 15° - 20° C, (59° to 68° F) with a relative humidity of around 90%. The warehouse is breathtaking to behold. Imagine thousands of mellowing cheeses emitting the comforting fragrance of warm milk.

The casaro's job is not over yet. He must file off the sharp edges of each cheese within its first 15 days while its outer skin is still soft, and he must also turn each cheese over by hand four times within its first two weeks. At this point each weighs about 37 kilos (82 pounds). After this initial period, the cheeses are now ready to begin their long ageing. Every week each cheese must be turned over, and the shelf on which it rests must be cleaned. This arduous task used to be done by the lowliest employee. Nowadays, a robot, which looks like an extended fireman's ladder with a mechanical arm attached, does the job.

After eleven months, the Battore (the Drummer) arrives. He taps each cheese with a small mallet. If it makes a hollow sound ("like the sound you get when you hit a soccer ball") that means it has a structural flaw. This happens to about seven out of 100 cheeses. These have the name Parmigianno-Reggiano crossed out and are relegated to a separate area in the warehouse. They are usually sold to pasta making factories who use the cheese in its grated form. The Parmigiano-Reggiano which pass the sound test are branded with the identification number of the company who made them.

At 12 months each cheese is branded with the Consorzio logo. At 24 months, it is retested by the Battore. This time he will determine those cheeses which have tiny imperfections and those few which are destined for the longest ageing. The cheese is called nuovo when it is between 12 and 18 months, vecchio at between 18 and 24 months and stravecchio if it has two to three years ageing.

As it ages the cheese becomes deeper in colour and forms white calcium and amino acid deposits, and its sugars concentrate and caramelize, creating an aftertaste of dried fruit and nuts.

Italian scientists have studied the benefits of Parmigiano-Reggiano for many years and have determined that it can indeed be of medicinal use, particularly for young children and the elderly, as it is easy to digest and it integrates well with the stomach's natural microflora. Locally, Parmigiano is the first solid food given to babies and it is prescribed for children with gastro-intestinal problems. In addition, Parmigiano's high level of calcium and phosphorus makes it an extremely useful nutrient for those suffering from osteoporosis. Athletes, too, should include it on their training table, as 100 grams of Parmigiano has the equivalent protein value of 200 grams of meat - and it is lower in cholesterol!

As valuable for our health as it may be, we should not overlook the most compelling reason to enjoy Parmigiano-Reggiano: It tastes good!

Parmeggiano-Reggiano Recipes

300 grams celery
80 grams Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 small head of radicchio
1 small head of curly endive
3 pears
12 walnuts
olive oil
salt and pepper

Clean and dry the radicchio and the endive. Tear the leaves into small pieces. Add thinly sliced celery and the sliced pears, the walnuts and the Parmigiano-Reggiano cut into very thin pieces. Mix the juice of one lemon, some olive oil and a pinch of salt until it forms an emulsion. Add the dressing to the salad and toss.

If the Parmigiano-Reggiano is vacuum packed, it can keep unopened for from six months to a year without deteriorating. Once it is removed from the vacuum-pack, wrap it in a cotton dishtowel, and keep it in the least cold spot in the refrigerator. This is usually the vegetable crisper. It can last in this condition for two to three weeks. Cloth is the preferred wrapping material because it not only protects the cheese from light, it also allows it to breathe. Never freeze Parmigiano-Regiano.

Parmigiano made the leap from mere cheese to symbol of the Good Life in 1353, when Boccaccio wrote in the Decameron of a beautiful mountain of grated Parmigiano in the land of Bengodi. By the 1500s it began turning up regularly as an ingredient in recipes and Italian gastronomic tracts.

1.3 kg. fennel
350 grams mozzarella
250 grams pureed tomatoes
100 grams Parmigiano-Reggiano
100 grams basil
olive oil
salt and pepper

Clean the fennel and cut each bulb in half, lengthways, and put in salted boiling water for 20 minutes. Dry the fennel. Dice the onion and cook it in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the tomato puree, cook for 10 minutes and season with salt and pepper. Cut the fennel into pieces around 1/2 centimeter thick and arrange in an oven proof baking dish which has been greased with olive oil. Arrange mozzarella slices in the dish, then add a layer of tomato sauce, then a generous sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Continue to layer the ingredients until all are used. Then distribute some shredded basil leaves on top and drizzle with oil. Bake in the oven at 190° C (375° F) for 25 minutes.

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