Parmigiano-Reggiano is a grana, a hard, fat granular cheese, cooked but not pressed, named after the producing areas of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, in Emilia-Romagna, and Mantova, in Lombardy, Italy.
Parmigiano is simply the Italian adjective for Parma; the French version, Parmesan, is used in English. The term Parmesan is also loosely used as a common term for cheeses imitating true Parmesan cheese, especially outside Europe; within Europe, the Parmesan name is classified as a protected designation of origin. The generic name for this type of cheese is grana.
Parmigiano Reggiano is made from raw cow's milk. The whole milk of the morning milking is mixed with the naturally skimmed milk (it is left in large shallow tanks to allow the cream to separate) of the previous evening's milking resulting in a part skim mixture. The milk is pumped into copper-lined vats (copper heats quickly and cools quickly). Starter whey is added and the temperature is raised to 33-35C. Calf rennet is added and the mixture is left to curdle for 10-12 minutes. The curd is then broken up mechanically (spinitura in Italian) into small pieces (around the size of rice grains). The temperature is then raised to 55C with careful control by the cheese-maker. The curd is left to settle for 45-60 minutes. The compacted curd is collected in a piece of muslin before being divided in two and placed in moulds. There are 1100 L of milk per vat, producing two cheeses each. The curd making up each wheel at this point weighs around 45 kg (100 lb). The remaining whey in the vat was traditionally used to feed the pigs from which Parma hams are produced. The barns for these animals were usually just a few yards away from the cheese production rooms.
The cheese is put into a stainless steel round form that is pulled tight with a spring powered buckle so the cheese retains its wheel shape. After a day or two, the buckle is released and a plastic belt imprinted numerous times with the Parmigiano Reggiano name, the plant's number, and month and year of production is put around the cheese and the metal form is buckled tight again. The imprints take hold on the rind of the cheese in about a day and the wheel is then put into a brine bath to absorb salt for 20-25 days. After brining, the wheels are then transferred to the aging rooms in the plant for 12 months. Each cheese is placed on wooden shelves that can be 24 cheeses high by 90 cheeses long or about 4,000 total wheels per aisle. Each cheese and the shelf underneath it is then cleaned manually or robotically every 7 days. The cheese is also turned at this time.
At 12 months the Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano inspects each and every cheese. The cheese is tested by a Master grader whose only instruments are a hammer and sound. By tapping the wheel at various points, he can identify undesirable cracks and voids within the wheel. Those cheeses that pass the test are then heat branded on the rind with the Consorzio's logo. Cheeses that are not so selected used to have their rinds remarked with lines or the letter x all the way around so consumers know they are not getting top quality Parmigiano Reggiano, but are now simply stripped of all markings.
Traditionally, cows have to be fed only on grass or hay, producing grass fed milk. Only natural whey culture is allowed as a starter, together with calf rennet.
The only additive allowed is salt which the cheese absorbs while being submerged for 20 days in brine tanks saturated to near total salinity with Mediterranean sea salt. The product is aged an average of two years. The cheese is produced daily, and it can show a natural variability. True Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has a complex fruity/nutty taste and a slightly gritty texture. Inferior versions can impart a bitter taste.
The average Parmigiano Reggiano wheel is about 18-24 cm (7 to 9 inches) high, 40-45 cm (16 to 18 inches) in diameter, and weighs an average of 38 kg (80 pounds).
Uses of the cheese include being grated with a grater over pasta, stirred into soup and risotto, and eaten in chunks with balsamic vinegar. It is also a key ingredient in alfredo sauce and pesto.
Parmigiano cheese is considerably harder the farther it gets from its center, and very hard near the crust, however it's exactly from this harder portions that the best grated cheese is obtained: a fine whiter dust which is more aromatic and tasty than the grating resulting from softer sections. Even Parmigiano crusts have their culinary uses, added to a pot of soup they can lend a pleasant, fine aroma to it, and they can also be chewn and eaten. Regularly consuming Parmigiano crusts can strenghten teeth and bones due to the calcium contained.
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