In the hillside of Modena we travel through small towns, some abandoned and run down to find tucked away in a corner, a caseificio in search of the greatest Parmasano. Travelling by car and we stop in tiny villages, towns and cities to taste any regional products. In almost every village you’ll find an artisan who maintains family tradition.
As we drive away, the stench of pigs a by-product of cheese production we meet a modest battitore who travels throughout Emilia Romagna grading the cheese on behalf of the consortium. We quickly gain some valuable knowledge and insight into where to go. The mountains are vast and we cruise past Modena and into the rolling valleys and twisting roads. Forests in nature, grass and fresh streams with cold water surround the cows. All these factors influence the final product. The cheese varies from region to region and from farm to farm.
But it’s Parmigiano-Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse, Parmigiano-Reggiano from Red Cows. Even better than the finest consorzio product, it is made from the exceptionally rich and creamy milk of the original milk source for Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pezzata Rossa, a breed almost extinct by the by the late 1980s. Like the Jersey Cow milk who has a deliciously higher butterfat content and more milk proteins; but it isn’t a high-yielding cow. After World War II, as the old artisan ways began to succumb to efficiency, it was replaced by the higher-yielding Friesian. The result: a less-rich Parmigiano. The other result: The breed began to die out, since only a few committed farmers would keep less profitable herds. Over the last 25 years, some herds have been reestablished, thanks in part to the Slow Food Movement, and are now being used to produce small quantities of this true connoisseur’s Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The combination of higher butterfat and more proteins allows for the production of a cheese that is better suited for a longer period of aging, producing a 30-month-old cheese instead of the 24-month aging period of most other Parmigianos. The extra aging yields a cheese that is uniquely nutty, fruity and grassy, with a flavor that is richer than most Parmigianos. The texture is creamy, even though the cheese is aged for a much longer time.
Stepping back in time (800 years) the monks in the area around Parma first started making a distinctive hard cheese. By the time of the Renaissance, people in the nobility were producing this fine cheese for their own consumption. The local language Latin, it was known as caseum paramensis, and locals shortened this to Pramsàn, in dialect. The idea of naming foods after their place of origin dates back to the Roman Empire. Even after the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., people on the Italian peninsula continued to follow that practice. It was a convenient way to describe the food, but also showed pride in its making.
In each cheese house caseificio, there is a cheese maker (casaro) who oversees the crafting of every wheel of artisanal Parmesan cheese. At each stage of artisanal cheese making, this highly skilled person must judge how to proceed after taking into account variables that include the season and precise make-up of the milk. The cheese making depends not only on the individual casaro’s experience, but on practices and thinking that can be traced back through the centuries.
The milk is gradually heated to 30 to 35°C before starter culture and then rennet are added. The starter culture must be made in each dairy from the previous day’s whey, which is allowed to ferment overnight. And only rennet from calves is allowed as a coagulant, none of the more modern vegetable or microbial rennet. The curd forms and is broken down into smaller particles traditionally by stirring with an enormous balloon whisk called a spinatura or spino. The mixture is heated to allow further separation of the whey and development of the correct acidity level. When the latter is reached, stirring stops, and the curd settles into one mass at the bottom of the cauldron.
The curd is hauled up from the cauldron bottom in large squares of cheesecloth and allowed to drain. It’s then divided into halves, and each half is placed into a straight-sided, cheesecloth-lined mold, called a fascera. After more draining, the cheesecloth is removed, and plastic sheets bearing the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” in a repeating pin-dot pattern, as well as the identifying number of the producing dairy and the month and year of production, are placed between the sides of the forms and the cheese (which is still soft enough to take on such impressions). A disc made of casein is applied to the top of the cheese; this disc contains a unique code that is used to identify every wheel of Parmigiano individually. Only now is salt added, and this is accomplished by immersing the cheese in a brine solution for up to four weeks. Gradually, the salt in the brine will work its way into the center of the cheese, but that requires months of aging.
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