Parmigiano Reggiano Region – Parma, Italy
The Emilia Romagna region is known for three things – Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, and luxury cars (Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati). Since we are not into luxury cars and would rather be eating, I looked into ways we could explore the process of making Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. Since we did not have a car, it provided a bit of a challenge to find a company that would accommodate our needs. Luckily, I found Parmalook Food Tour Experience who was not only able to provide transportation but also to incorporate both Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma experiences into one tour.
We met our guide, Matteo, outside the Parma train station and after picking up another couple in town we set off to the countryside. The first stop would be to visit a Parmigiano Reggiano factory, San Pier Damiani, of which his father is the master cheese maker. We learned that there are three dairy farms that are in a collaborative and own the cheese factory. They hire a cheese maker, Matteo’s father, to make the cheese with their milk. He is a very famous Parmigiano Reggiano maker known all over the world.
There are 350 cows total and produce 12 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano a day. The factory has six vats that hold 550 liters that make one 50 kilogram cheese which is then divided into two wheels.
With booties and bonnet donned, we entered the cheese factory to observe the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese making.
The process starts with two milk collections – Matteo’s father gets milk at 7PM and lets the fat separate (“skim”) out overnight – the fat becomes butter (no waste!). Then he collects another round of milk at 7AM the next morning to create a balance of skim and whole milk for the perfect ratio to make Parmigiano Reggiano – something that takes years of experience and practice. Then the fun starts. An enzyme found in the stomach of baby cows is added to the milk to curdle and this mixture is transferred into the vats.
The next phase involved separating out of the curds from the whey through vigorous agitation with what looks like a large tea ball before adding heat. The temperature reaches a certain degree before the vats are given time to settle, about 30 minutes.
We got the chance to try the cheese at this part and it really resembled mozzarella in texture and taste – it was hard to this this would one day be the Parmigiano Reggiano we know!
After it settles, the cheese maker makes a slice the cheese to evenly divide the large mass into two equal parts. Then the resurrection of cheese occurs.
With a tool that resembles a pizza paddle, the cheese is lifted from the bottom of the vat and the cheese maker catches it with a cheese cloth, tying it to a wooden pool to allow for draining.
After completing the process for the other five vats, the first is revisited to separate the cheese into those two equal parts – a part that had us all holding our breath!
Time passes and the cheese can be relocated out of the vat and into a mold that gives Parmigiano Reggiano that classic, notable shape. The entire process takes about two hours to get to this step.
Following the mold, the cheese to transported into the salt room below. After applying the stencil that outlines the information for that specific cheese wheel – including where it was made, the number of factory, and when it was made.
After more drying time, the wheel enters a salt bath to get that salty goodness needed for the aging process.
Once the brine process is complete, the cheese then makes its way into the aging room. When the doors opened into this space, it was a jaw dropping sight. Floor to ceiling there were hundreds of wheels!
All ages and all colors, it was easy to see the again process and how the color of the rind changes with time to a deep yellow. We were all amazing at this. The minimum aging time per DOP standards is 12 months but often aged are varying months past this – some as old as 60 months! Oh, and the smell! Instant rush of sharp Parmigiano Reggiano penetrated our noses as we walked the rows of endless wheels.
Here we learned how the cheeses are rated and classified. A small wood hammer is taken to the outside – the sound and pitch dictate how many crackers or imperfections exist in the wheel and give the classification. Each wheel is individually inspected – Class 1 being the best Parmigiano Reggiano wheels, Class 2 being acceptable and anything less cannot bare the name Parmigiano Reggiano. Here are San Pier Damiani, Matteo’s father makes Parmigiano Reggiano that 92% of the time is classified as Class 1 – incredible.
It was truly amazing to not just learn about this process but see it in action. There is so much work, attention to detail, physical labor, and dedication that is required to be a successful cheese maker. Matteo’s father has not taken a day off in years – cheese making is more than a passion but his vocation, making 12 wheels a day, every day, and taking care of the hundreds of wheels under his protection.
Of course we could not leave without tasting this amazing cheese! We had three Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses at different aging times – 12 months, 24 months, and 30 months. Having them side by side it was easy to identified the difference in taste and texture – much like wine tasting! The 12 month was more creamy where the 30 month was crunchy due to the formation of salt crystals. All of it was delicious and it felt like such a privilege to be here.
Back to the van, we said “arrivederci” to Matteo’s father and San Pier Damiani as we drove a half hour north to the region of Prosciutto di Parma.
Continue on to read about the process of making Prosciutto di Parma here!
What an incredible way to start the day! We learned so much about both processes and it was event better to not just hear about it but actually experience it. It is amazing that both actually work in giving us a staple product of Emilia Romagna – the first person to do this with cheese and ham – especially after all that mold – was very brave indeed to give these a taste. Both still maintain the recipes from their origins and have been refined to the process we have today. Thank you for Matteo and Parmalook for such a great day!