Saturday, 7 January 2023

Discovering the secrets of Parmigiano Reggiano production – and other must-try food and drink specialities in Emilia-Romagna

Parmigiano Reggiano wheels ageing at Caseificio San Bernardino [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

There may be thousands of cheeses around the world, but there aren’t many as globally renowned as Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s so popular, TasteAtlas ranks Parmigiano Reggiano as the world’s fifth most popular cheese (although we’d probably place it even higher). For some, it’s just a cheese you use to sprinkle over pasta, for others, it’s important enough to be used as bank collateral.

We went behind the scenes at Caseificio San Bernardino, which produces around 15,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano a year. It’s one of around 300 consortium-approved dairies near Parma, and has been in the business of cheesemaking since the 1800s. Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium spokesperson Giovanna Rosati said production takes place once a day, every day, including Christmas Day. On the farm, the dairy looks after the whole cheesy supply chain: it breeds the cows in the fields, produces all the milk, produces the cheese, and stores it for aging in the amazingly impressive maturation rooms.

How is Parmigiano Reggiano produced? 

The incredible ageing room at Caseificio San Bernardino [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

As Parmigiano Reggiano is a PDO product (which means Protected Denomination of Origin), it has to follow a pretty strict set of rules and regulations outlined by the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. It can only be made with milk from local cows, natural calf rennet – some people are surprised to learn Parmigiano Reggiano isn’t vegetarian – and salt. The cows also have to follow a strict diet of 70% local hay, and 30% barley, soy and corn.

At San Bernardino, the milk arrives at the dairy within a couple of hours and it’s poured into large upside down bell-shaped vats which hold 1,300 litres of milk. To make each wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, it takes a whopping 550 litres of milk. Fermented whey is added to the milk from the previous day’s processing, before some rennet, which allows the milk to naturally coagulate.

It’s then workout time, as the master cheesemaker has to turn the curd into small granules using a large tool called ‘spino’, which resembles a large sieve on the end of a big pole.

A skilled Parmigiano Reggiano cheesemaker wields his spino [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Everything is then heated to 55 degrees Celsius, which leads to the cheese bits sinking to the bottom of the vat and joining together into a large mass. This process takes around 50 minutes, before the cheesemaker hauls the cheese out of the liquid with a linen cloth, and chops it in two. Rosati said, “The only two that are the same are the ones in the vat.”

Once the cheese has been cut, it’s placed first in a plastic mould, then a metal mould to take on its final, recogniable shape. From there, it’s branding time. The cheese is wrapped with a plate which features a unique code, “like a car’s numberplate,” Rosati said. This means the cheese can be traced anywhere in the world. And it’s marked with the month and year of production, along with the special cheese factory registration number and dotted inscriptions you’ll likely recognise from the rind of the cheese.

After a few days, it’s bath time, as the cheeses are put in a large vat of salt water. It’s then just a matter of patience as each wheel is moved into the amazingly impressive storage facility.

How long does the cheese mature for?

The hammer used by quality inspectors to test Parmigiano Reggiano wheels [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

The cheese is left to mature for 12 months. While it’s maturing, it’s looked after by a robot which picks up, cleans and rotates each wheel to help the process. After a year, it undergoes an inspection, and it’s back to traditional methods. The wheel is tapped with a hammer and the impressive quality inspectors can hear if there are any issues or defects inside the cheese.

If it is up to scratch, it’s fire branded with the Parmigiano Reggiano logo. If it doesn’t make the cut – apparently a not-insignificant 8% of all Parmigiano Reggiano falls at this hurdle – all the marks and signs are removed from the cheese and it can no longer be called Parmesan. Rosati said, “Each wheel must not weigh less than 35kg.”

From here, the cheese may be sold, or continue maturing for 24, 36, 40 months, or even longer. In fact, during the 2021 International Cheese Festival, a 21-year-old Parmigiano Reggiano wheel was sold at auction.

What should you eat Parmigiano Reggiano with?

Parmigiano Reggiano chunks cut with the traditional almond-shaped knife [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Ok, so first up, Parmigiano Reggiano is worth so much more than just grating it on pasta. Yes, it’s joyous to do that and wholeheartedly encouraged, but when you discover how versatile the cheese is, you’ll be reaching for it in so many other situations.

We love Parmigiano Reggiano on a cheeseboard – a huge hunk of it you can cut away at with the traditional almond-shaped cutter. You can use the rinds to flavour soups and stews, carve off large slivers to adorn beef carpaccio, or eat more mature Parmigiano Reggiano (40 months +) with a couple of drops of balsamic vinegar.

The younger cheese at 12-18 months makes a delightful pairing with sparkling or white wines, while the more mature cheese can stand up to bolder red wine. Or keep it local and enjoy with a glass of Lambrusco.

Other must-try specialities from Emilia-Romagna

The window of La Prosciutteria Silvano Romani in Parma [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

While you could easily enjoy every meal in Emilia-Romagna with Parmesan – and if you’re anything like us, definitely will – the region is renowned for all kinds of world-class produce and local dishes. Here are seven other things you need to try.

Aceto Balsamico di Modena PDO

The amazing Aceto Balsamico di Modena PDO at Acetaia di Georgio [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Balsamic vinegar is (understandably) one of the more misunderstood products. Yes, you can buy balsamic vinegar at the supermarket for a couple of pounds. No, you can’t buy Aceto Balsamico di Modena PDO in the same way. Then there’s Aceto Balsamico IGP, which is somewhere in between the two. The rules are the most strict – and the product is the most expensive – when it comes to the PDO product. This is controlled by a consortium, which states the vinegar can only be made with cooked grape must, using varieties that are typical to Modena. The vinegar must be aged for a minimum of 12 years in wood barrels (made from oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry or juniper, nothing else) which decrease in size. The only other age permitted for sale is 25 years. You can seriously taste the difference though, and the intensity is incredible. Just a couple of drops is enough, and will have to be, as it can only be sold in 100ml bottles. Book a guided tour of Acetaia di Georgio to see which wood finish you like best. Our favourite was the 25-year-old juniper.

Prosciutto di Parma

Prosciutto di Parma on Foccacia at Croce di Malta [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Like many PDO products, Prosciutto di Parma is strictly controlled, with lots of quality rules and regulations. The process originated thousands of years ago, and hasn’t changed much since. To start the process, the pork hind legs are tagged to show when the curing process began, before being salted by a salt master. Other than air and time, salt is the only added ingredient. The minimum time it takes to make Prosciutto di Parma is 400 days, but it could take up to three years. To check you’re enjoying the real deal – and you’ll definitely want to – check for the five-point Ducal Crown, which guarantees the quality.

Culatello di Zibello

Culatello di Zibello aging in the cellars at Antica Corte Pallavicina [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

This cured meat packs a serious punch, and it’s unlikely you will have had the chance to try it outside of Emilia-Romagna as it’s rarely exported. It’s made by ageing the hind leg muscle of pigs which have been raised and slaughtered in the region. First, the meat is salted and wrapped in twine. After a few days, it’s wrapped in a pig’s bladder, then wrapped in twine again and aged for at least a year. When ready, it’s cleaned, washed in Fontana del Taro wine and thinly sliced. There aren’t many better places to try Culatello di Zibello than Antica Corte Pallavicina, a Michelin-starred restaurant and agriturismo with an entire ham-scented cellar packed with Culatello. Head chef Massimo Spigaroli even sells his Culatello to Massimo Bottura at Osteria Francescana – and King Charles is a fan too.


Podere Il Saliceto L'Albone Lambrusco di Modena [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Get those thoughts of the cheap, incredibly sweet, fizzy wine your grandma used to drink as a treat out of your head. Although you can find white and rosé Lambrusco, it’s most known as a sparkling deep red wine, available from dry to sweet. Lambrusco is the name of the wine, and a grape, but it’s also the collective name for different grapes. Some common grapes used in the production of Lambrusco are Grasparossa, Maestri, Marani, Monstericco, Salamino and Sorbara.

Mortadella Bologna
Known as the Pink Queen, this meat originated in – as the name suggests – Bologna. It’s had a bit of a revival of late, with deli cold cuts trending all over TikTok. Mortadella is made with pork shoulder and lardons, and spiced with pistachios, olives, black pepper and myrtle berries. With its signature white against pink polka dots, it’s very recognisable.

Anolini in Brodo
Every region, town and village in Italy has a different pasta shape. Of course there are plenty of arguments about which is the best. Parma’s pasta shape is anolini. Like a little flying saucer, each anolino is stuffed with slow-cooked beef, and the pasta is then served in a beef broth. The whole lot should of course be liberally dusted with Parmigiano Reggiano.

Gnocco Fritto

Pillowy soft gnocco fritto at Antica Moka, just outside Modena [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Find yourself a back street salumeria, or book yourself a table at Antica Moka, a gorgeous restaurant serving local food and modern interpretations of classic cooking, and enjoy a generous heap of gnocco fritto. Like biting into the softest pillow, these fried, lard-enriched dough squares are heavenly. Pile with Mortadella, Culatello or Prosciutto and delight in the combination of sweet, succulent meat and rich yet incredibly light dough.

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