“The district is called Bengodi, and there they bind the vines with sausages, and a denier will buy a goose and a goslin into the bargain, and on a mountain, all of grated parmesan cheese, dwell folk that do nought else but make macaroni and raviuoli, and boil them in capon’s broth, and then throw them down to be scrambled for.
“The Decameron” 1348 by Boccaccio
Parmigiano Reggiano, awarded best cheese in the world (World Cheese Award 2022) clearly deserves my written tribute. At least this is what I thought when the I got the news. Writing on Parmigiano Reggiano is like taking a fantastic ride on a time machine while I witness wars, barbarian invasions, travels and discoveries. This globally renowned, unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese, pride of Italy is not just “some cheese”. It is pure history and as such, I like to imagine knights and ladies, kings and queens holding a piece of it during banquets, while sipping a good wine and listening to fine music. Nothing too different from the parties of today, just a thousand years earlier. Every year, I take my US students and chefs to Parma. I truly believe it is vital for them to understand how this cheese was born and is still made. Waking up at 4 am in order to be ready to show up at 8 am at the caseificio (cheese factory) in Parma, is worth the price of admission. There, nothing has changed, tradition is maintained in every single step of the Parmigiano Reggiano production. Punctually each time I get the same exact reactions from my students: pure astonishment and joy. Every dollar spent to buy this cheese now, has a different meaning. For me, tasting an ingredient without any of its history is like having a plate of pasta with no sauce. Therefore, let me share some of its fascinating history. What makes Parmigiano so special? Where does that unique flavor come from? Its journey officially starts with a notary deed in 1200 in Genoa, where the already famous Caseus Parmensis was regularly eaten, sold, and shipped from. A clear evidence of how popular this cheese already was in what we now call Italy. We know for sure that the Benedictine monks already made it in the year 1100 in the attempt of saving the daily milk, creating a cheese with a very long shelf life. Its production became steady in 1300 and Parmigiano started to be exported to Germany and France where it was considered the finest cheese during the Renaissance. Needless to say, due to its growing fame, many cheesemakers started to imitate it, hoping to achieve the same results. Sadly for them, this cheese cannot be imitated for a few simple facts: the type of cows, high-quality grass and hay from the meadows and pastures of the Reggiano Apennines are responsible for the cheese typical straw-yellow color and intense flavor. These qualities cannot be topped anywhere else, not even in Italy itself. The urgent need to protect Parmigiano on the market from other similar cheeses though, forced the Duke of Parma Ranuccio I Farnese to make the designation of origin (PDO) official with a deed dated 7 August 1612. The deed defined the places from which the cheese called “from Parma” should come. Still today Parmigiano Reggiano is produced exclusively in the pristine meadows in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena, in the pastures between Bologna and the left of the Reno River, and in those of Mantua to the South of the Po River.
The farms and dairies which join the Consortium to produce Parmigiano Reggiano must meet precise requirements: the cows must be grass fed with 150 different types of high-quality grasses, amongst them alfa alfa, all strictly certified non-GMO. The cows are not fed silage, fermented feed or meat and bone meal, no preservatives or additives, no antibiotics, or hormones. As a consequence, the milk used for the cheese production will be the purest and most flavorful one. Parmigiano uses a very unique recipe: the best milk, sea salt and rennet. Not to mention the clean air and pure water that make the area of production the same one of centuries ago. The cow breeds used in the production of Parmigiano are the Italian Friesian, originally imported from Holland in the early 1800; the Brown Cow, introduced in the 16th century from Lombardy; the white Modenese, and the Red Cow or Reggiana, introduced to Italy by the barbaric population in the 4th century A.D. This last one is by far, the most popular and excellent breed for the production of Parmigiano Reggiano. Nutrition wise, the Parmigiano Reggiano Vacche Rosse is the best, probably more expensive due to its limited production . If you find yourself between Parma and Reggio Emilia, the Land of Plenty described by Boccaccio, you cannot miss a visit to a Caseificio (cheese factory). You can arrange the visit online and present yourself by 8 o’clock on the dot. You better be there as the cheese master will not wait for you if you are late. Timing is everything in the making of this cheese. Eight o’clock is the time all the whole milk from the morning milking along with the skimmed one from the previous evening ‘s milking, arrives at the factory where it is immediately poured in huge bell-shaped copper-lined cauldrons.
It takes 291 gallons of milk to produce two wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano. The cultures-rich whey starter, from the day before, gets added to the raw milk and warmed up to 91°-95° degrees F. Calf rennet gets then added as well and within 10-12 minutes, the milk slowly coagulates. At this point, the cheese master shows up with the spino, the traditional whisk, and breaks the curds into small granules. In front of your eyes, you have a gigantic pot of a mixture that looks like cooked rice! Now all it needs is cooking until the temperature reaches 131° F so that all the granules sink to the bottom of the cauldron forming a huge mass. Fifty minutes later, the elastic mass is compacted by hand and then divided into two identical 100 pound wheels to be, called gemelle (twin sisters) wrapped in linen cloth, lifted to drain and immediately placed in the traditional molds to be shaped.
The leftover whey is used in the following cheese production and also given to local farmers to feed their pigs, eventually used for the production of Prosciutto di Parma. Now the legal stuff begins. After a few hours of resting in their molds, each wheel is wrapped with a special band which engraves the distinctive and unique dotted Parmigiano Reggiano words, plus the month and year of production and the number of the cheese factory where it was made. A few days later, the wheels take a bath in a pool with a saturated solution of salt and water. Salting by osmosis is the final step in the Parmigiano Reggiano making after which the wheels can finally rest and mature for 12, 24, 36, 40, 72 months or more. Twelve months have gone by and the inspections begin. The Consortium is very strict on this. The tapper, the inspector with the small hammer and super-hearing powers, will check each and every wheel by tapping and listening with his trained ears what the wheels have to say. If the sound of the wheel is even and perfect to his ear, the wheel will pass the quality test and will be branded with the PDO mark. If the sound reveals defects that may compromise the quality and expected results, the wheel will be turned into grated cheese, used in other dairy products, crossed off to show that the quality is not exceptional and sold for a lesser price. Making Parmigiano is not a once a week event. Cheese factories make cheese every day. I will never forget the first time I visited one. After the whole lesson on how milk turns into wheels, I was directed to a long dark corridor. In front of me were two huge doors. Open Sesame! Upon entering I saw what looked like never ending shelves of golden wheels almost touching the ceiling all towering over me. While passing between the rows of shelves, the sweet and nutty fragrance of the cheese was inebriating. 9,000 wheels were just in that cheese factory. The equivalent of Fort Knox for a mouse! I hope you could visualize this moment. If not, do yourself a favor. Go see it in person. After the tour, a final cheese tasting is the perfect conclusion to a 1000 of years of gluttony. And there are no excuses for lactose intolerants! Parmigiano Reggiano does not contain lactose or galactose due to the rapid development of lactobacilli, which through fermentation, eliminates all the lactose contained in the curd in a 6-8 hours’ period. Even the galactose, a simple sugar that derives from lactose, gets metabolized in about 24-48 hours and disappears completely. Parmigiano Reggiano is therefore a 100% lactose free cheese.
Yes, I had to! Way too many times I eat everything but what I had ordered, which is disappointing. Not to mention that by changing this recipe, you totally change its history, its value. Fettuccine Alfredo is a classic and easy Italian dish often brutalized by the addition of heavy cream or béchamel sauce or killed with different types of cheeses. This dish, created by Alfredo Di Lelio in 1907 in his own Roman restaurant Alfredo alla Scrofa, features just thin fresh egg tagliatelle, unsalted butter and Parmigiano Reggiano. No grilled chicken, no shrimp, no Swiss cheese or Cheddar. Punto!
1 lb fresh thin egg tagliatelle
2 oz grated 24 months aged Parmigiano Reggiano
5 oz unsalted butter, softened
cooking pasta water to emulsify
Place the water in a pot and bring it to a rolling boil. Season with sea salt and add the fresh tagliatelle. Normally fresh egg tagliatelle cook in less than one minute.Place the soft butter in a large serving dish. Using tongs, transfer the tagliatelle directly onto the plate with butter. Do not drain them too much as the water will be the emulsifier in the recipe. Using a fork, start dragging the tagliatelle back and forth in order to combine them with the butter and create a creamy texture. Sprinkle the cheese on top and keep dragging. serve immediately with extra grated Parmigiano on top.
It’s July 4th 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico and Cesare “Caesar” Cardini an Italian immigrant was working in his restaurant. During Prohibition, Americans used to flood his restaurant where Italian and Mexican food was regularly served and paired with alcohol. On that very day, Chef Cardini threw together a bunch of improvised different ingredients and the rest…is history. The anchovies were not part of Cesare’s salad. They were added two years later by his brother, adding more flavor to it. Now please, forget chicken and shrimp and make the original version!
15 leaves of Romaine Lettuce, mostly taken from the heart, washed in cold water and chopped in to bite size pieces
3 cloves of garlic
4 anchovies filets
1 Tbs Worchestershire sauce
2 coddled egg yolks (cook eggs in rolling boiling water for 52 seconds, then crack them open and separate yolks) Pasteurized eggs can be purchased .
the juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp Dijon Mustard
1/2 cup virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
freshly ground black pepper and sea salt to taste
1 cup sourdough croutons, cut into 1 inch cubes, baked or fried with garlic butter until golden and crunchy
Parmigiano Reggiano shavings
Crush and husk garlic. Place it in a wooden bowl (preferred) add anchovies and one single crouton previously crumbled and smash everything together with a fork to make a paste. Blend in the Worchestershire sauce, combining well. Whisk in coddled yolks, lemon juice and mustard. Pour in virgin olive oil and whisk with until emulsified. Dust with freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of sea salt. Add the lettuce, sprinkle the cheese on top, add croutons and using salad tossing forks, toss to combine well. Serve with shaved Parmigiano on top.