The artisanal secrets behind Italy’s most precious cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano

Parmigiano Reggiano is Italy’s most celebrated cheese. To merit the name it must come from one of 300 recognised dairies and  be made using age-old techniques. This is a true labour of love — and the proof is in the product.

Published 12 Nov 2020, 11:00 GMT
Each wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano is stamped with a unique code; an identity card to ensure every ...

Each wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano is stamped with a unique code; an identity card to ensure every one can be traced back to its origin.

Photograph by Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium

I pinch a slice of straw-yellow cheese between my thumb and index finger, sending flurries of crumbs to my balsamic-splattered plate below. 

Like a rough diamond plucked straight from Northern Italy’s green pastures, my 36-month Parmigiano Reggiano sparkles with tyrosine crystals and oozes with scents of nutmeg, dried fruit and thick, meaty stock. It’s flavoursome punch is salty but sweet, sharp but smooth, earthy but light.

A PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) product since 1996, Parmigiano Reggiano is made within a geographical area so specific that a dairy on the wrong side of Bologna wouldn’t make the cut. In fact, a hard cheese can only legally be called Parmigiano Reggiano (or Parmesan, as it’s known outside Italy) if it was produced in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna (to the left of the river Reno) and Mantua (to the right of the river Po). There’s even a Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium to ensure the cheese is made exclusively by 300 artisinal dairies in a 6,200-mile radius, according to very specific production methods. 

Extending from the Apennine Mountains to the Po River in the north, the region of Emilia-Romagna is known for its rich gastronomic heritage.

Photograph by AWL Images

“It all begins with the soil,” says the consortium’s Giovanna Rosati as we leave the tasting room and step outside into Parma’s dairy farmlands, the distinctive taste of Parmigiano Reggiano still lingering on my tongue. I’m surrounded by bucolic bliss; miles of rolling green hills dotted with head-height bales, herds of black-and-white Friesian cows, and crumbling 19th-century stone farmhouses. 

“The grass that grows here contains very special bacteria, which is essential to producing the high-quality milk needed to make Parmigiano Reggiano,” she continues. Unlike most of Europe’s dairy industry, these cows are fed almost entirely on locally grown forage. The absence of fermented feed such as silage means the milk doesn’t require any artificial additives in order to be processed into cheese; this also allows the regions’ unique bacteria to thrive. “Despite modern times, Parmigiano Reggiano remains 100% natural — just as it was when the monks first discovered it.”

Although the first written record of the cheese didn’t appear until 1254, Emilia Romagna monks from the early Middle Ages — who at the time were experimenting with food preservation methods — were likely Parmigiano Reggiano’s first producers. The monks are also given credit for many more of Emilia Romagna’s star products: “Parma Ham, culatello di Zibello, Aceto Balsamico tradizionale, Parmigiano Reggiano — all of them were born out of a need to make nutritious food last longer and travel further,” food historian and Parma city guide, Alice Rossi, explains later over a glass of red lambrusco. “Today, these products are deeply rooted in our culture,” she says, gazing out across the city’s historic Piazza Garibaldi. “If I were to cut open my veins, I’m sure traces of Parmigiano and Parma ham would flow out.”

Parmigiano Reggiano is cooked at 55C before being hauled out of metal vats using muslin cloths.

Photograph by Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium

Back in the countryside, we make our way from the fields into a room gleaming with machinery and hissing with steam escaping from copper-coloured vats. It’s barely 8am, yet the cheesemakers at family-run Ciaolatte — one of the 300 dairies producing Parmigiano Reggiano — are already preparing their fourth wheel of the day. 

Enormous bell-shaped vats ripple with hundreds of litres of hot cow’s milk collected that morning, sending great puffs of mist into the air, while the cheesemaker breaks curd into small granules using a giant balloon whisk. “Of course, we use modern machines to keep up with demand now,” says master cheesemaker Dario Peveri, who started working at his father’s farm when he was just 19. “But the ingredients and methods are the same as they were nine centuries ago.” 

Dubious that a 900-year-old method could remain intact despite the use of machinery, I ask Dario why the production of Parmigiano Reggiano is still considered to be artisanal. “The proof is in the cheese,” he replies as he hauls what looks like a giant mozzarella ball out of a milky broth using a muslin cloth. “No two wheels are the same because so much relies on the instinct of the cheesemaker. If the machines did it all, every wheel would be identical.” 

Once the cheese has been encased in a round mould, engraved with its unique tracking number and dotted with the Parmigiano Reggiano inscription, it’s left to soak in salt-saturated water for up to three weeks. After the absorption period, the cheese will begin its maturation process, and will only be fire-branded with Parmigiano Reggiano’s prestigious oval mark once it passes its 12-month quality check. 

That evening, I enjoy an eight-course menu at Ca’ Matilde, a Michelin-starred restaurant nestled among the Lambrusco vineyards. I tuck into into a ragu made not with beef, but a 40-month Parmigiano Reggiano rind; the long maturation gives the edible casing enough beef stock undertones to act as a meat replacement. It comes alongside a pumpkin croquette perched prettily atop a Parmigiano Reggiano foam, dusted with a crunchy truffle crumb. 

“This cheese is to Italians what soy sauce is to the Chinese,” says head chef Andrea Incerti Vezzani. “It’s a product with an amazing ability to enhance flavours and turn an average dish into a wonderful one.” Parmigiano Reggiano is rich in calcium and a source of phosphorus. Indeed, 25g provides the calcium needed for the maintenance of normal bones, and it’s consumed by Italy’s young, elderly and athletes alike. When I ask the chef what the future holds for the use of Parmigiano Reggiano around the world, he can barely contain his excitement, “We haven’t even realised its full potential in Italy yet — but we’re working on it.”

I end my journey in Emilia Romagna as I began it: holding a rough-cut diamond of Parmigiano Reggiano, in awe of the fact that this simple product — made with just milk, natural rennet and salt — captures the flavour, identity and culture of an entire land. For the people of Emilia Romagna, Parmigiano Reggiano is far more than just cheese; it flows through their blood and, after just three days here, I think it flows through mine, too. 

You'll find Parmigiano Reggiano on the menu at most local restaurants in Parma.

Photograph by AWL Images

Four must-try local specialities


Anolini in brodo
Every region in Italy boasts its own pasta creation. In Parma, its anolini, small and saucer-like in shape, stuffed with anything from parma ham to braised beef, but always with a generous grating of medium-aged Parmigiano Reggiano. Head to family-style Ai Due Platani to try the famous pasta parcels.

Tortelli di erbette
Tortelli — pasta parcels with delicate crinkled edges — is another of Parma’s favourite pasta varieties. They can come filled with pumpkin or coated in a creamy mushroom sauce, but the most traditional is di erbette, tortelli filled with swiss chard, ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano and, to finish, topped with melted butter.

Bomba di riso
The bomba di riso (‘rice bomb’) is a stuffed risotto rice cake popular in Emilia Romagna’s mountainous region. The bomb filling can vary, but it’s usually stuffed with a rich, slow-cooked meat sauce and seasoned with buckets of Parmigiano Reggiano before oven-baking. 

Aperitivo
Between 6-8pm, most Italians flock to vinotecas for pre-dinner drinks and snacks known as aperitivo. In Emilia Romagna, this should ideally involve a 12-month Parmigiano Reggiano served with apricot jam or drizzled with balsamic vinegar. A glass of Lambrusco and Emilia Romagna’s cured meat, culatello di Zibello, are the perfect accompaniments. 

Essentials 


Getting there and around
Several airlines fly from London to Bologna and Milan. From there, it’s a 1h and 1h30 train ride to Parma respectively, or consider hiring a car, which is the the best way to get out of the city and explore the region.

When to go
Emilia Romagna is perhaps best experienced in the spring and early autumn, when temperatures hover around 20C and skies are clear. 

Find out more about Italy's most beloved cheese.

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