The Big Cheese

Making of Parmigiano-Reggiano a time-honored tradition in Italy

By By Wendy Hunsinger
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While making risotto, the redoubtable Venetian rice dish found on many restaurant menus, I thought about how ingredients can really make a dish. Risotto, a dish with a few ingredients, needs ample time, care and love to bring about final perfect.

One particular ingredient that makes most risottos divine is another much-heralded Italian import, Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is considered "the king of all cheeses" by many Italians and celebrity foodies, such as chef Mario Batali and cook book author Lynn Rosetto Kasper.

Like risotto, real Parmesan, which we'll call it for short, is equally simple yet complicated in its production and flavor personality. Don't confuse it with the stuff that comes in plastic shaker bottles. While they are more accessible and affordable than the real stuff, true Parmigiano-Reggiano has a flavor that is haunting nutty, earthy and sweet, with nuances of fine champagne and a marvelous crystalline texture.

Italians take this cheese very seriously. True Parmigiano-Reggiano must be made in Italy, and it must be made in the region of Emilia-Romagna. Furthermore, it has to be made in specific provinces of Emilia-Romagna, Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena. This all is because of its Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC, status. Various Italian products such as cheeses, wines, olive oils and tomatoes are DOC-regulated, which means they must adhere to specific regulations in production as specified by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. In the case of Parmesan, it must be inspected after a year of aging by the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Other specifications of  Parmesan are that it can only be produced with grass and hay-fed  raw cow's milk between the months of April and early November, and must be aged a minimum of 14 months. The date is almost always burnished onto the rind along with the name Parmigiano-Reggiano, a DOC stamp, the Consorzio's logo, and code numbers expressing the season's production and where it was produced. The wheels must also weigh between 66 to 80 pounds.

Parmesan is considered a hard cheese and is often referred to as a grana, or grating cheese. Because of its long aging process, Parmigiano-Reggiano develops an abundance of crystal deposits. This is due to protelysis, or protein breakdown in the cheese during aging.

As mentioned before, flavor is the true moniker of this Italian gem. Grated over risotto, pasta, or bruschetta, Parmesan can take a simple dish to the next level. It's also great chunked, and inserted into various roasted meat dishes like chicken and beef, and makes an even better snacking cheese. Italians in Modena, where the best balsamic vinegars are produced, often drizzle balsamic vinegar over chunks of Parmesan, which makes one great dessert. Others in the region enjoy their Parmesan with slices of cured ham, Prosciutto di Parma, and a nice sparkling glass of Lambrusco, the traditional wine of the region. A nice Prosecco or Moscato d'Asti can be substituted, or if a red wine is required, big Italian wines such as Barolo, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and Chianti pair wonderfully.

If you're not sure you've had real Parmigiano-Reggiano, go out and sample some at your local cheese shop. You'll understand why all those other "Parmesans" are trying to imitate this beloved cheese.

Wendy Hunsinger is the specialty-food manager for Katzinger's in German Village.

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