If you’ve only ever tasted the powdery stuff you get in packets in supermarkets, then real parmesan is a revelation. Rupert Parker visits a dairy in Emilia Romagna where they produce this “King of Cheeses”.
Parmigiano Reggiano is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product, meaning it can only be produced in one part of Italy – the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua to the right of the Po River, and Bologna to the left of the Reno River. I’m in Zocca situated between Bologna and Modena to visit Caseificio Rosola where they make their own. They used to sell their milk to other dairies but a few years ago decided to process it on the farm.
It’s quite a small space, covered in white tiles and the process has been the same for over 900 years using just three ingredients – unpasteurised milk, rennet and salt. It takes 14 litres of milk to make 1kg of cheese. The cows graze in nearby fields and the morning milk is brought here and mixed with that of the previous night in four upturned bell-shaped copper vats. It’s heated, then they add rennet plus a whey starter from previous production, and the milk coagulates into curds.
The master cheese-maker uses his spino, a giant steel whisk, to break these down into smaller granules and the heat is turned off when the temperature reaches 55C. Over the next hour, the solids sink to the bottom, and then the spongy mass is removed and divided into two. Each half is wrapped in muslin and hung on poles to get rid of excess liquid. They’re then compressed into moulds and left to drain for a few days.
Out of the moulds, these wheels of cheese are immersed in a saturated solution of water and salt and left for 24 days, then transferred to curing rooms where they remain for a minimum of a year, turned every 10 days. If the cheese passes the 12 month inspection it can then be sold as Parmigiano Reggiano, but further maturation really does bring out the flavour.
From 12 to 18 months, it’s still regarded as a young cheese, with flavours of milk, yoghurt, and fresh fruit. But by 24 months, visible white crystals can be seen, and the cheese is crumblier and grainier on the palate. The umami is more pronounced and there are subtle flavour notes which include tropical fruit, cooked milk and melted butter. Use it for stuffing tortellini or grating over pasta
At 36 months, the cheese is spicier, even more crumbly, with dried fruit, nuts and even leather on the tongue. Eat this on its own with honey or a splash of Modena balsamic vinegar. Further aging is possible, up to 90 months and, if you find it, taste with a sweet wine like Marsala or Passito.
Since it’s the asparagus season, here’s a recipe which is best made with 24 month cheese.
Asparagus with Poached Eggs & Parmigiano Reggiano Sauce – Serves 2
- 14 Asparagus spears
- 1/3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 2 Eggs
- 2 tbsp. Parsley, chopped
- 15-20g Parmigiano Reggiano, shaved
- 25g unsalted butter
- 1 tsp. Plain flour
- 100ml Milk
- 50g Cream cheese
- 30g Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
- ½ tsp. Lemon zest
- Salt & Pepper
- To make the sauce, melt the butter in a small heavy based saucepan over a medium- low heat. Stir in the flour and whisk in the milk to thicken.
- Stir through the cream cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, and lemon zest and season to taste. Keep warm and stir periodically to prevent a skin from forming
- Cook the asparagus spears in salted boiling water for 3-5 minutes until just tender. Remove from the heat, drain, and plunge quickly into ice cold water. Drain again and toss in olive oil, with some salt and pepper
- Meanwhile, poach the eggs in boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Drain on kitchen paper.
- To serve, lay spears of asparagus on two serving plates topped with a poached egg and drizzle over plenty of sauce. Sprinkle over a little parsley and black pepper and top with Parmigiano Reggiano shavings.
For further information visit www.parmigianoreggiano.com
To read Rupert Parker’s article on Parma Ham click here…