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I am positive that just about everyone reading this post will have bought packs labeled “Parmesan” from their local supermarket. I am also sure that just about everyone will have used said Parmesan in their cooking, whether it was as the basis for a sauce or simply grated over a bowl of steaming pasta.
Unfortunately, much of what is on sale in the U.S. is mass-produced, a pale imitation of true Parmigiano-Reggiano from Northern Italy, and lacks the texture and deliciously nutty flavor of the genuine article. The good stuff may be pricey, but it is worth every penny and I really hope that Battle Parmigiano will inspire everyone to go out in search of the real deal.
What is Parmigiano-Reggiano?
Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard cheese from Northern Italy. The cheese is made from raw milk taken from cows that have been fed only grass and hay. It is normally made between the months of April and November when the grazing land is lush and green.
Parmigiano-Reggiano has been made in more or less the same way since the 13th century, and the processes of its manufacture are now strictly codified so that only around 450 small artisan dairies currently produce the cheese that carries the coveted name.
The cheese is started by adding natural whey to the fresh milk and then adding rennet, which comes from the stomach of a suckling calf, to coagulate the curds. These are then strained to remove the liquids, shaped and set into the familiar wheels, which weigh in at around 80 pounds. These are then soaked in brine for 25 days before being aged for between 16 months to 2 years.
The aging allows for moisture to be removed from the cheese, and the final result of this lengthy process is arguably one of the most famous foods in the world and one that has become beloved for both its unique flavor and unmistakable crystalline texture.
Where does Parmigiano-Reggiano come from?
True Parmigiano-Reggiano must be made in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy. It is an area that encompasses a number of provinces including Bologna and Parma, from where the cheese gets its name.
It is legal to make Parmesan anywhere in the world and many similar cheeses are made in the U.S.A., particularly in Wisconsin. However, the name Parmigiano-Reggiano is heavily protected by a European P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin) and only cheese from this region can carry labels with that name.
How do you cook with Parmigiano-Reggiano?
True Parmigiano-Reggiano has a unique flavor unmatched by any of its imitators. It is at once nutty and slightly fruity with a crumbly texture that comes from the aging process. Its deeply savory flavor comes from the crystals, which are primarily composed of glutamates, the source of umami. In fact, Parmigiano-Reggiano is reputed to have the highest levels of umami of any food in the world.
Parmigiano is obviously fantastic when used with pasta, either added to sauces like ragu to give extra flavor and depth or mixed with basil, garlic oil and pine nuts to make pesto sauce. It is just as good when simply shaved or grated over freshly cooked pasta, to add seasoning to the finished dishes after they have been served. I also like to use Parmigiano in baking, particularly when making fluffy gougère and as an interesting addition to otherwise standard garlic bread. If you make your own meatloaf, hamburgers, meatballs or sausage, try adding a few tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigiano to the ground meat to add an extra note. Just be careful to reduce the amount of salt you add to the mix as the cheese is quite salty in its own right.
Of course, with a cheese this delicious, the very best way to enjoy it is to simply carve off a few thin slices and eat them with nothing more than a glass or two of rich Northern Italian wine like Gavi or Barolo to wash them down. Allow the slices of Parmigiano to rest on your tongue where they will dissolve, allowing all the remarkable flavors to fill your mouth. It is truly a culinary experience to savor.
Where can I buy Parmigiano-Reggiano?
Most supermarkets will sell both domestic Parmesan and genuine Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. However, you should avoid buying cheese that has been pre-grated or wrapped in plastic and look to select from what is available at the fresh deli counters that are now found in so many stores. If your supermarket does not have a fresh counter, check online for your nearest Italian deli.
Most stores will wrap the cheese in waxed paper. Keep this to wrap the cheese in while it is in the fridge. You may also want to place the cheese in a plastic storage box to stop the strong smell from affecting other items in the fridge. I am told that Parmesan freezes very well, but to be honest, I use so much of it, long-term storage is never an issue.