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Italy Trip — Parmigiano Reggiano (Morning)

 

parm regg

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.

509 parmigiano reggiano no export brand

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.

parm regg vat ready to cut

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.

cutting parm regg curds

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!
adriano parm regg maker

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.

tying off parm regg

 

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.
parm regg wheels

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.

509 parmigiano reggiano aging

 
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.

 

 

Italy Trip — Parmigiano Reggiano (evening)

Next up after Pecorino Romano was Parmigiano Reggiano. We arrived near Modena at twilight and visited a Parmigiano Reggiano producer and ager. This was not the caseificio we buy from but it was still interesting to see. Much bigger and more modern than our caseificio, this factory makes about 100 wheels a day.

parm regg vats

Cheese professionals hold on for a second because I know you know this — while 100 wheels doesn’t sound like a whole lot, you have to remember that these wheels are 85lbs each when sold and this is a lot of cheese. Even the biggest producers don’t make much more than double this amount per day. While there a number of producers who’ve recently gone out of business– especially post-earthquake — Parmigiano Reggiano, despite being sold all over the world, is still a cheese (mostly) made with very traditional methods in the region where it was born.

(Here are pictures of an aging room after the earthquake that was posted on the wall)

parm regg earthquake

Still, most of our Parm sightseeing would wait until the next day. That night we just watched the the milk truck to come and deliver the milk for tomorrow’s cheese. Why is this important? Because the milk has to be stored overnight and then skimmed in order to make Parmigiano Reggiano the right way. There wasn’t a lot of action going on, but there’s no Parm in the morning without the milk from the night before.

And that’s kinda beautiful:

parm milk

 

 

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.

Italy Trip — Fulvi Pecorino Romano

Flying to Italy from SF for only four nights — this was the most jet-setting thing I have ever done. While it was exhausting, it was also amazing, finally watching some classic cheesemaking in action and visiting people whose cheese I have bought for decades. Sure I only got a total of twenty hours sleep in five days, but it was worth it.

You can see it in my eyes though:

me at fulvi

After 18 hours of travel and an airport espresso* we were off to our first cheese factory (in Italian: “caseificio”). Buonatavola, makers of Sini Fulvi Pecorino Romano Genuino, the last Pecorino Romano still made in the region of Lazio and exported to the USA. Yes, you heard me mention this cheese in the Great Romano Kerfuffle of 2017.  It’s because it is the best Romano available in the USA and has been for a very long time.

buonatavola factory

Pecorino Romano is a great cheese if used properly.  Certainly Cacio e Pepe is the signature dish, but it goes well in almost any home pasta dishes if you adjust the recipe. Because Pecorino Romano is a saltier, sharper, earthier, and less sweet cheese than Parmigiano Reggiano is can’t be used interchangeably.  The most important thing is to cut down on salt elsewhere and be prepared for a more assertive cheese.  If you don’t wanna do that, that’s cool too. Despite paranoid ramblings of some food writers, no one is forcing you to.

But if you wanna talk about taste in relation to region, Pecorino Romano is crucial to Southern Italian food. Again, the trick is buying a good one. This is why I am at Caseificio Buonatavola, not in Sardinia.

The first striking thing here is the volume for a 100% sheep milk production.  It’s incredible to an American.  Lack of genetics and support are huge factors but these Lazio sheep are special even in Europe.  We were told that they produce as much as three times more than some other milking breeds.  Either way, this is a lot of sheep milk! This is the yield from one morning’s make and each of these wheels are about 60lbs when ready to be sold, about seven months down the line.

romano

As with any hard aged cheese, the Pecorino Romano make is all about moisture expulsion and tiny curds.  The Romano is notable for its extra dry-salting step in addition to brining.  Sorry about the bad pic, but check this out between the cheese and the form.
romano salting

I should mention right now that upon arriving at this caseificio, I realized I had brought my old, broken camera to Italy instead of the the one that actually works.  All these pic are from my phone which is much more susceptible to humidity distortion.  And the Fulvi plant is a humid space.

And underground, there is a lot of cheese.

romano at fulvi

Fulvi makes a few other cheeses but are probably best known for the Romano.  The ricotta, not currently available in the US, was amazing.  We ate one of these for lunch.

ricotta

Anyway, this was my first morning in Italy.  We never went to Rome proper. Instead, off to Modena to visit Parm producers and agers.

Goodbye Fulvi!
fulvi cans

*People who know me may be surprised at this because I do not drink coffee at home. But when, literally, in Rome…. what are you gonna do? Plus, I needed some caffeine really bad.

 

 

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.

Cheese isn’t trendy

It may be counterintuitive, but even though I work with a food that is seen as trendy right now, I strive not to be. Sure, it helps our store when some food website or newspaper article promotes an obscure cheese, but one of the most beautiful aspects of cheese is its history and regional evolution. When a cheese like Comte can humblebrag “1000 years of artisanal production,” it’s more about sampling it or suggesting it than hawking it like a used car.

This, unfortunately is the opposite trend of some clickbait food writing these days. I go out of my way not to criticize other food writers. Partially this is because – though I have written two books – I am only a part time food writer. I am a full time cheesemonger and I always figured the odd OMG-you-have-to-try-this-now-it-will-change-your-life is the equivalent for a writer of the commodity block cheese that fuels any grocery store cheese department. It pays the bills.

I felt like even a relatively recent cheese book that was so clearly “I’ve-already-spent-my-advance-so-I-need-to-turn-this-manuscript-in” could be read in a positive way as a meta-statement and cautionary tale about overly metaphorizing food. The very act of trying to write about the production and eating of one cheese into a book-length universal statement about the way-we-live-now made the narrator an Ahab chasing his artisanally-produced white whale. Other writers beware!

However, I think I hit my limit with this article: “Why Parmesan is Better than Pecorino Cheese” Let’s just start with this straw man:

“For the past ten years (more or less), a message about pecorino has been pushed to unsuspecting eaters like me: Pecorino is the new Parmesan, and anybody who knows anything about food (chefs, cookbook writers, etc.) knows it.”

Not only is this a dubious statement – I rarely see interest in Pecorino Romano at the expense of Parmigiano Reggiano unless it’s a sheep/cow issue – something very different is true. Anyone who tells you Pecorino Romano is the new Parmigiano Reggiano knows nothing about cheese.

bammer 415

(Here I am repping the 415 Parmigiano Reggiano. Don’t gimmie no bammer brie!)

There is no need to choose one over the other as some kind of rule. Both have their history and uses that date back to long before there was a united “Italy.” I do feel bad for any “unsuspecting eaters” who may have heard – somewhere — that they are inferior garbage people if they like Parmigiano Reggiano more than Pecorino Romano, but maybe those folks should invoke a little more critical thinking in their food reading. Especially if they are the editor of a popular trendy food website.

To his credit, the author, David Tamarkin editor of Epicurious, does admit in this trashing of Pecorino Romano that he is partially correcting his own “lie.” One of his first acts as editor of Epicurious was to write the following:

“Parmigiano is great. Pecorino is better. Sharper, funkier, more flavor-forward—and, generally cheaper. Use it wherever you would use Parmigiano (AKA Parmesan), aged gruyere or manchego”

To you folks out there who are not cheese professionals: if you want a tip-off to whether a writer knows anything about cheese here it is… if a writer says “pecorino” instead of defining what kind of pecorino it is (Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Sardo AOP, pecorino fresco etc.) read no further. Also, if a writer says “use this instead of…” and names three cheeses from totally different regions and with different taste and textural properties, read no further.

The author here is referring to Pecorino Romano, but even if this was defined, there is more variation on Pecorino Romano* available in the US than there is with Parmigiano Reggiano. Much Pecorino Romano is no longer made in the region of Rome, but rather in Sardinia. Some, not all, of this is suitable only for use as salt licks for deer hunting or perhaps melting snow in certain climates. Here’s another tip for gauging whether an author knows cheese: if they suggest subbing “pecorino” without telling you to adjust the salt level in your food, stop reading.

Tamarkin does apologize to America for promoting “pecorino” but he cops an insanity plea while doing so. It’s the voices in his head (of Brooklyn hipster chefs) that made him do it! Yet, his ode to “pecorino” remains online in the Epicurious list of “essential” pantry items. In this way Tamarkin is still, in effect, bullying himself, maintaining the straw man that he so bravely tries to destroy in his current article.

Anyways, I am writing this instead of updating our new worker handbook so I am going to get back to that. We have to make sure that when people come in to accuse us of forcing “pecorino” on them, new workers know how to respond. First rule: tell customers not to believe most of what you read about cheese on trendy food sites. The cheese will remain after the hype is gone.

* BTW, I would recommend two brands of Pecorino Romano in particular: The Fulvi Pecorino Romano Genuino and the (relatively new to the USA) Pondini imported organic Pecorino Romano

 

 

 

 

Food Quotes – cheese grater

“‘One of the very first things that I joked with Rob (Delaney) about was how, if it wasn’t so hard to get a divorce, I would be divorced,’ (Sharon) Horgan says.  In his standup routine Delaney sometimes equates marriage to ribbing yourself with a cheese grater, rubbing your wife with a cheese grater, and then smashing the exposed flesh, blood, and sinew together so that you heal as a single mutilated being.”

Willa Paskin,  “The Brutal Romantic: Sharon Horgan’s comedy “Catastrophe” offers an unblinking look at coupledom,” The New Yorker, 4/25/16.

Some great cheeses from Des Moines (ACS 2016)

 

We tasted a lot of great cheese in the judging room.  I’m sure there were dozens of cheeses in categories I didn’t get to try or that finished a close second in their categories.  Here are a few cheeses that I judged that I gave serious consideration to voting for as “Best of Show.” For info about the judging process, see my previous post “ACS Cheese Judging” and the post by Janee, “The Mobile Monger,”  “Judging and Competition.”

Little Mountain, Roelli Cheese Company, Best of Show

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Check out the paparazzi!

You all know I like the Roellis. Heck, I devoted most of a chapter in Cheddar to their story because it exemplified the realities of cheddar-making so well: a family factory making commodity cheddar just can’t stay in business anymore unless they find other cheeses to make. Little Mountain is an Alpine-style cheese, originally modeled after Appenzeller, but modified to work with the local environment of Shullsburg, Wisconsin. (Jeanne Carpenter did a great write up of this here that you should read.)  This cheese was made to honor the Roelli’s family cheesemaking heritage and we all know Chris Roelli has been struggling to make this cheese perfect for a long time. Looks like he finally did it! Not a dry eye in the house when Chris and Kris walked up to accept their Best of Show ribbons, especially theirs.

Buff Blue, Bleating Heart Cheese, tie 2nd place

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What can I say, I love these cheeses and Seana Doughty does California proud with every cheese she makes. My personal fave is the drought-friendly Double Down, a sheep/cow blend but this buffalo milk blue is really special: rich and meaty in an uncommon way and not afraid of being moldy. Heartwarming too because Bleating Heart was on the ropes not too long ago. On a personal level, I hope that this win puts Seana’s cheese in counters all over the country. She deserves it.

St Malachi Reserve, The Farm at Doe Run, tie 2nd place

Artisan cheese is still regional to some extent, and I so hadn’t heard of this cheese before this conference. I have carried some soft Farm at Doe Run cheeses, so when this was announced I didn’t even realize it was in my own top tier of cheeses while judging. I was sitting in the airport at Denver, waiting for my connecting flight, when I was all, “OMG this is that amazing aged gouda!” Caramel, toasty, meaty, and salty/sweet/sharp. I would say that this is the best gouda made in the USA if not for my love for….

Jeffs’ Select Gouda, Caves of Faibault, tied for 3rd

This is a seasonal, grass fed cheese that I have loved for a long time. The apostrophe is not in the wrong place, it’s the project of two Jeffs: Jeff Jirik and Jeff Wideman. Again, sweet and earthy and caramel and sharp. Glad to see this cheese get some recognition after all these years.

Greensward, Murray’s Cheese/Jasper Hill, tied for 3rd

This is basically a small format Winnimere, made for Murray’s cheese and it’s every bit as awesome as you’d expect. One of the most complex soft cheeses you will ever try and I have written about it a few times over the years. This is the kind of cheese that just wasn’t made in this country 20 years ago. That’s why I keep talking about the cheese renaissance!

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Harbison, Jasper Hill

The complexity of flavor and incredible balance of this cheese makes it just an incredible accomplishment. Just another one of America’s best cheeses.  I have loved this cheese for a long time now and, honestly, I thought it was the best Jasper Hill cheese in the competition, though it was a very close call.

Providence, Goat Lady Dairy

I had no idea what this cheese was until, like the St Malachi Reserve, I figured it out in the Denver airport. I don’t know much about this cheese, but based on the sweetness, I would guess it’s based on a goat gouda recipe. This is just an excellent aged goat, very complex with great depth of flavor, and wonderful texture.

Bella Vita, Firefly Farms

This is an aged goat milk cheese with the delicate complexity of a great Sardinian Pecorino (Yes, I know that comparison switched milk types). A little more subtle than some of the winners, but a cheese with an aftertaste that may have been the best aftertaste of the show.

Labne, Karoun Dairies

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OK, it’s unlikely a fresh cheese will ever win Best of Show at ACS because it’s hard to compare the complexity of an alpine or washed-rind cheese to a “simple” one, but man, this is the best Labne I know of in the USA. I just want to let you know, Labne, I see you. I see you. I eat this at work almost every day with honey and fresh fruit. (This is an old picture. I think it costs $2.39/ea now.)

Red Hawk, Cowgirl Creamery

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In the Bay Area, sometimes people forget how damn good this cheese is. Tasting it again amongst the best of categories, I was reminded how good and grassy and rich and slightly pungently balanced this cheese is. We are lucky to have it as a local standard.

Prufrock, The Grey Barn

I have literally never heard of this cheese before. If you are near Massachusetts, I would seek it out. Incredibly well-balanced washed rind cheese: a touch pungent, fatty, and nuttier than one would expect for the style. I didn’t think about it much but when I tasted it, I assumed it was Canadian. Cheese people know, that is a huge compliment.

 

There were lots of other great cheese but these were the cheeses that spoke to me in that room. Remember that cheeses in competition are the best of that day, and so results may vary – both directions — at stores. Overall though, every year I judge there are more serious contenders for Best of Show and higher scores overall through every one of my categories.  Amazing job everyone!

 

 

ACS Cheese Judging

Judging was great, like usual. I am in awe of the way that every year has more entries and yet the process gets smoother and smother. Think of the logistics of receiving, organizing, logging, and tempering 1843 cheeses… it’s really pretty amazing. I’m indebted to all these folks for doing the behind-the-scenes work.*

Every year, people ask me for details about the judging so this post is hopefully going to answer those questions. There were 21 teams of judges this year, the most ever. Each team consisted of a technical judge and an aesthetic one. Technical judges are almost all dairy scientists with a few other well-recognized experts thrown in for good measure. Aesthetic judges are recognized as the prettiest people working in cheese so I was really happy to be chosen again. I still have it at 48 I guess… I credit all the butterfat.

See, here’s my most recent picture. It was taken yesterday (unlike my author photo!)

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Seriously though, the aesthetic judges are people who have worked in cheese for a while, shown some degree of expertise, and usually have more retail/distributor experience than scientific training.* The American Cheese Society judging system pairs these two types of judges in order to recognize the importance of technical rigor to cheesemaking, but also acknowledge that imperfect cheeses and unexpected flavors can create amazing cheese as well. The technical judge is the bad cop, starting at 50 and taking away points for defects. The aesthetic judge is the good cop, starting at zero and awarding up to 50 points. The scores are combined for a possible, but unlikely, total of 100.

We taste about 40-50 cheeses on day one and another 40-50 at the beginning of day two in order to get through all the categories. Later in that second day, we reconvene to taste the winners from every category and decide on our individual favorites. We rank those 1-3 and they receive weighted points which are then added up to decide the Best of Show. It’s gruelingly awesome! It’s an endurance of amazement! It teaches lactose tolerance!

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A score of 100 is unlikely but this year we had a first in the history of ACS… a four way tie for 1st place in the “Open – soft-ripened cheeses – Made from cow’s milk” category. Since I got to try all four during the Best of Show process, I can attest that they were all amazing cheeses and it would have been hard to deduct or not award full points. Mountian Ash by Sweet Rowen Creamery, Ashley by MouCo Cheese, and Harbison and Moses Sleeper by Jasper Hill got the blue ribbon(s) and these are some of the best soft-ripened cheeses made in this country for sure. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to conceive of these being made in the USA. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in this cheese renaissance.

Other judges have their own methods, but when I am deciding on BoS I have a system.  First I go through the room tasting all 100-or-so cheeses taking notes on my favorites.  This usually eliminates all but about 20 cheeses.  Then I go through and taste all of those again deciding on the cheeses that I would feel good about voting for in my three BoS votes. This number varies from year-to-year.  Sometimes I have an obvious top three. Sometimes I consider about a dozen very seriously.  This year I settled in on a top seven or eight, any of which I would have been happy to see win the big title.

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(photo by Rachel Perez)

Mostly, I don’t know until the awards guide is released after the Awards Ceremony who I voted for. It’s a blind judging. However, as a monger, I regularly handle some cheeses that are very distinctive so a few times every judging I have to remind myself to judge the cheese, not the sometimes long history I have had with a cheese. I feel like I do that with integrity partly. I am so honored to be asked to judge this competition, I would do nothing less. All five cheeses** that placed in Best of Show were in my top tier so I felt pretty on par with most of the other judges, based on the result.

I love the purity of those two days before the conference starts. I know I have said this before, but the cheeses have to speak for themselves for likely the only time in their lives in that judging room. No sales pitches, no heart-warming origin stories, no brokers, no prices, no labels. I feel like it re-calibrates my cheese senses, especially being in a quiet room instead of a store and sitting next to a technical judge instead of a sales rep. Thanks ACS!

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*I was going to link to the letter from John Antonelli, Judging Chair, but it’s not online yet.  I will link to this when it’s up because I don’t want to forget anyone or not acknowledge folks who were so far behind the scenes that I didn’t see them.

**Someone asked me so I looked it up, I was asked to judge at ACS for the first time after working 13 years in cheese.

***I will talk about them, and others, in my awards ceremony post.