Milk, Fire Rennet and Art – Witnessing the Birth of Ancient Parmigiano-Reggiano

img_3015The Artisans of the Reggio Emilia region have been making Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for about nine centuries. The cheese we are about to witness is identical to the original wheel produced 900 years ago by the monks of Bibbiano. It has the same appearance, texture and extraordinary flavor it had then.

Unchanged like a living relic of Italian food heritage, we have come to discover. Of course, we come to eat.

We are to learn that the cheese master’s expertise is as important as the work of a chef.

We enter a small, unassuming facility lined with a dozen large copper vats—our guide Claudio calls them vasques. They are filled with creamy whey and submerged; somewhere deep within something is cooking and birthing.

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Cheese is made every morning when the day is fresh, and the natural breezes come down from the mountains. But the cows are milked twice a day as all cows are.

The evening milk arrives around 7:30pm and is put to rest for the night. From this bedded milk, they collect the fat and make sweet butter in the morning.

When the morning milk comes in, it is mixed with the last evening’s milk in the vast copper cauldrons. It is never pasteurized but cooks at 50-55 degrees for half an hour or so.

Here the magic of milk, fire, rennet and art happen. It becomes creamy, coagulating with the stirring of a traditional metal tool called a “spino.”

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The fire may be the most important part of the process because the temperature must be regulated, or the entire wheel will be ruined.

The solids drop to the bottom of the vat and separate from the whey. The cheese is born at this moment as they massage it from the bottom using large wooden paddles.

Each vat will make two wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano—they are considered twins because they are birthed from the same vat.

The cheese master Mario and his two assistants wrestle and collect the baby and slice it in two by hand. The mother is heavy weighing over 200 pounds.

Mario and his workers are strong. They manage to wrestle and birth many twins every day of the year.

Each twin is tied with cheesecloth and hung to wring out the liquid.

It is then nestled into plastic rounds bound by great ropes. Here they take their shape, sleeping in the first of many drying rooms. The cheesecloth must be changed every two hours—just like a baby.

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On the second day, they are placed in metal arms. The vessel is compressed by hitting a block of wood to tighten the bands with a mallet. This tightening squeezes out yet more liquid.

After a few hours, a special marking band engraves the month and year of production onto the cheese, as well as its dairy registration number and the unmistakable dotted inscriptions around the complete circumference of the cheese wheel.

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It will wear this identity card for the remainder of its life with only one empty space left for the final DOP approval.

After a few days, these babies are transferred to a great pool full of water mixed with sea salt. Here they rest for 20 days suspended in salt water which acts as a natural preservative. Even the quality of the salt must be approved by the DOP consortium of inspectors.

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After the salt water bath, the adolescents go to the dark maturation room, but the work is hardly finished.

Mold begins to grow, and they must come off the shelf and be cleaned and turned. This turning of 100-pound wheels goes on every week for a minimum of 1 year.

After 12 months, the DOP inspector examines and inspects each cheese one by one. If something has gone wrong and the bacteria has begun to eat the proteins holes can develop inside the cheese.

Since you cannot cut open the rind to see holes, the inspector must beat the cheese with a wooden mallet. If there are holes inside, he can feel the vibration – he can hear it with his great mallet.

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After the inspection, a mark is fire-branded onto the cheeses that tells us it meets the requirements of the Protected Designation of Origin.

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If the cheese is not perfect, but still not so wrong, they do not burn the final stamp.

Instead, the wheel is engraved with parallel lines which render them recognizable to the consumer. This second-class Parmigiano-Reggiano is called “mezzano” and can be sold at a discount.

If the cheese has gone very wrong, it cannot be sold in a shop but only used for industrial purposes. Depending on the quality of the dairy, approximately 3% of the cheese goes into ingredients.

The difference of one degree per minute gone wrong—at the beginning—can be the ruin a perfectly good wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

From here we go to the farm where the girls are raised and milked. The nearby barn contains stacks of hay all stamped with the date of harvest. One wheel of hay feeds 10 cows each day.

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We learn that there are 80 different varieties of grasses that can be fed to these special cows, and all those grasses must be grown in this region to achieve the DOP designation.

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We go inside, and wedges of cheese have been cut and await our tasting. Their granular structure becomes crumbly when cut into slivers. Here we savor the 12-month 24-month and finally the 36-month Parmigiano-Reggiano.

My mouth waters, my nose quivers. As the cheese gets older, it has decidedly stronger aromas with notes of fresh citrus and hints of nuts. It crumbles and becomes grainy filing the mouth with powerful milk flavors beside herbs and fruit.

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It has been an extraordinary journey through a landscape of rivers, plains and hills. We have witnessed the balance of man’s passion and ancient knowledge with nature’s bounty.

As our Italian culinary odyssey ends, the best part is the memory we take with us. Whenever we savor Parmigiano-Reggiano again, we will appreciate the authentic process that milk, fire rennet and art together can produce.

If you are in Reggiano Emilia and want to make this same memory, visit Claudio’s Facebook Page for a savory experience.

To learn more about Protected Designation of Origin or DOP, read my previous blog.

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