In a recent post about Parma ham, I explained about my invitation to learn more about the production of two of Parma's most famous products – the ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano, parmesan cheese.
You can read a little more about what it means to have a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, in that previous post.
Below are some images from the parmesan cheese producer we visited; a visual walk-through of the production process.
Making Parmesan Cheese
Fresh raw cow's milk is delivered to the cheese producers daily. A whopping 600 litres of milk is needed to make a single 38 kilo wheel of cheese!
The PDO regulations cover raw ingredients; the cows that produce milk for Parmigiano-Reggiano must be fed on a regulated diet of fresh grass, hay and grains.
A starter of natural fermenting-whey is added to the milk, which is stirred regularly and slowly heated to 33°C.
Calf rennet is added to the milk.
The curd that starts to form is broken up into small fragments using a sharp-edged tool known as the spino (thorn-bush), a spherical metal cage on a stick.
The temperature is raised to 55°C.
I love this cheeky image of the head cheese maker in his shorts. Hygiene is critical to the cheese making process.
With practised skill that is mesmerising to watch, the curds are enclosed and lifted into a cloth, using a large paddle. Two men then carefully tilt and roll the curds within the cloth to form a rounded mass, which is then tied to poles and left hanging within the vats, which are drained of the remaining liquid.
Even with most of the whey drained away, what I can't see is the bell shaped bottom of the copper vat which sits below ground level where it is heated and cooled by steam and water.
The whey by-product is used to make ricotta or fed to pigs, with a small batch retained and allowed to ferment, for use as a natural starter for the following day's production.
At this stage, the warm loosely-packed fresh cheese tastes very bland, just like home-made paneer, actually.
Using a crane, the individual masses of curd are lifted out of the copper vats and carefully placed in fascera (circular moulds) for pressing, enclosed in fresh white fabric. A plastic forma is slotted in to line the moulds, imprinting the soft curd with all the relevant information about the producer and date, plus the familiar Parmigiano-Reggiano repeated around the circumference of the cheese. The moulds are tied and pressed using wooden blocks and ropes that can easily be tightened.
Bar code information, printed onto disks made of casein, is pushed against the surface of the cheese and batch information is written by hand onto each wheel.
The cheeses are turned and allowed to set for a few days.
Next, the cheeses are soaked in salt water for 20-25 days. The salt within the brine penetrates the cheeses very slowly, and continues to work its way to the centre during the next several months.
Finally, the cheeses are transferred into the cascina (maturing room) for a minimum of 12 months and as long as 30 months.
Cheeses are checked regularly. An inspector uses a special hammer to tap all over the surface of the cheese. Imperfections reveal themselves by a change in tone, that practised ears can easily detect.
Cheeses which pass inspection can be branded with the official logo of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano (a consortium that authenticates the production and standards of the cheese, represents all the producers, assists with marketing and trade and of course, defends the PDO status).
Those which have not ripened evenly are scored horizontally around their circumference, to mark them as having failed to meet standards. These cannot be sold under the Parmigiano-Reggiano name but there is a strong demand in Italy for the younger, softer cheese which is sold as Mezzano.
As the specifications for Parmigiano-Reggiano are very rigid, some cheese producers also experiment with variations, which they brand and sell under different names.
As an ardent cheese-lover, I really enjoyed the opportunity to witness how traditional Parmigiano-Reggiano is made, not to mention the chance to sample top quality cheeses of different ages.
The youngest Parmigiano-Reggiano available to buy has been matured for 12 months. You can also look out for red stamp wheels, which have been matured for 18 months or longer, silver stamp wheels which have been matured for 22 months or longer, and gold stamp Parmigiano-Reggiano which has been matured for a minimum of 30 months.
Longer maturation results in a stronger flavour and a drier, crumblier and grainier texture.
I will be sharing some recipes making use of Parmigiano-Reggiano soon.