Before I write more about Parmigiano Reggiano I want to make a pledge. For years – even after I knew it was wrong – I referred to the number on the wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano as the “farm.” This may be true in some cases – if the cheese is farmstead, but most Parmigiano Reggiano is made from locally pooled milk, often from cooperatives. The correct term is “caseificio” or cheese factory. In our case “cooperative” would also be ok because the milk for our Parmigiano Reggianos all comes from a seven-member co-op in Reggio Emilia.
The “509” on the top is the number I am talking about. Each wheel has a caseifico number and if you want, you can even trace yours here. The other interesting thing about the picture below is that you can see it does not yet have the “export” brand in the big empty space between the caseificio number and the date. At less than a year old, it is not yet known if this wheel will be good enough to age long enough to earn that marker.
Even though I have sold Parmigiano Reggiano for almost 23 years, I learned a lot by actually visiting. There really is no replacement for being in the actual place where something is made. Literally breathing in the milk-heavy air… really seeing – step-by-step – what it takes to make such an amazing thing as Parmigiano Reggiano.
Because when you see what it takes it’s hard to believe — and I probably shouldn’t write this — that you can get a very good Parmigiano Reggiano so cheap! I mean, I know that it’s still a relatively expensive thing to buy when the average person is figuring out their shopping list, but the process – limited region, copper vats, specialized tools, hand-production, only two wheels per vat – is painstaking. And then it has to be aged (for high quality cheese ) for two years before you can sell it. The few nods to modernity, like a machine to lift the cheeses, are understandable to anyone who uses their body to make a living.
This is so beautiful, I really had to keep myself from diving in!
I would say this picture below is of the person who makes our cheese, but that’s not technically true. He’s the person who makes the cheese we will buy in the future. Because he’s only been the master cheesemaker at this plant for about two years, we have yet to try his cheese even though we’ve been carrying the #509 Parmigiano Reggiano for years!
Right now, this caseificio is only making 18 wheels per day. All are made in these copper vats that fit two wheels per make. This means that we buy about four days of their production every year. This really feels significant when you are standing in the make room, meeting the people who make your cheese, and who depend on their high quality standards being recognized so that they continue the traditions that grew up over the last 900 years or so in the region where they live.
I mean, there’s a reason that “parmesan” has been industrialized and cheapened. It’s a great cheese with little risk of spoilage that provides nutrition and flavor. But every time I try (or sell) a “parmesan” alternative to DOP Parmigiano Reggiano I cringe a little at endangering the tradition that creating a truly epic cheese. I mean, I get it, I really do. I get that half the price for a domestic parm is a necessity for a lot of people, but it’s also about 1/10 of the flavor of a truly good Parmigiano Reggiano with it’s complex fruity, sharp, nutty flavor.
I like to concentrate on one caseificio because it usually ensures that we are selling great Parmiginao Reggiano that’s worth the price. Parmigiano Reggiano quality does have some potential problems on both ends of the age spectrum. Some Parm Regg that advertises its long age is old simply because it’s been sitting in someone’s warehouse for awhile. Due to a change of export rules, Parmigiano Reggiano is now allowed into the US at 18 months. It’s still good cheese, but not really what most folks are looking for in terms of texture or depth of flavor. Also, pre-grated tubs tend to be from less highly-rated wheels and include rinds, just so you know…
Anyway, getting to actually visit the maker of our Parmigiano Reggiano was a highlight of my life in cheese. The smell, the taste of the curds from the vat, seeing the whole process from milk-to-cheese was a pilgrimage of sorts, recognizing that there is something very special that is produced here and has been for hundred of years before Italy was even a unified country. Visiting makes you question, once again, how people figured out this whole cheesemaking thing. One can envision an intuitive jump that gave us fresh cheese, chevre or feta, but visiting Reggio Emile makes you admire those actual artisans who figured out the mystery of curds that would allow something perishable to be transformed into something less fleeting, ensuring there would be food to eat months and years down the line. There’s a vision implicit to every wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano that makes it a triumph of human spirit as well as amazingly tasty food.
I should note that this trip was made possible by Michele Buster at Forever Cheese and Brad Dube at Food Matters Again. Ethics require me to say that you should take everything written here with a grain of salt since they took me on the trip. Of course, I also carried these cheeses for decades without getting a trip to Italy so keep that in mind too.