The real Parmesan cheese is unique – its taste will surprise you. Crunchy and soft on the inside, it’s designed to melt in your mouth on top of pasta or other foods. Parmigiano Reggiano is the king of the cheeses. Yet it’s made from three simple ingredients – raw milk, rennet, and salt.
Its story begins in the fields between Parma and Reggio in Emilia, Italy’s food valley, in the Middle Ages. As early as 1200 people were selling it in Parma. In 1612 the Duke of Parma made its designation of origin official.
The glorious flavors that hit your taste buds depend on several factors – local hay, the breed of cows, and whether the seasoning is for eating (“da pasteggio”), mature (“maturo,”) or “stravecchio.”
Anything worth eating takes time to make
The zone of origin today includes the cities on the right side of the Po river (the longest in Italy) – Parma, Reggio Emilia (red cows), Modena (white cows, the elite choice), Mantova – and those on the left of the Reno river – Bologna. If you want the real product, then its production happens within these areas.
Want to know how important this is? 2.2 million (more than 2.5 million USD) reasons. Say, cheese!
It’s a luxury product with no preservatives and additives, no external interventions that modify the activity of the bacteria naturally found in raw milk during the production process. The milk comes from farms in the area of origin – at the tune of 600 liters (more than 2,000 fl oz) per wheel.
So we’re talking one or two wheels a day from 335 producers. 57,000 tons in 2017. At 12 months, Parmigiano Reggiano is already good for the market. The first has hints of milk and fresh fruit. You can see how that makes it a good choice for eating. A little bit of grapes, fig jam, and you’re in a for a treat.
Aging makes it even better
On the special shelves it keeps aging to 18 months. In store, this is marked by a lobster color sticker. At this age, it’s more friable and grainy and has a good balance between sweet and savory. Over 22 months it will be marked by the silver stamp. This is good for grating.
From 30 months and older, it gets the gold. This is the richest in nutrients and its flavor is decided with hints of spices and dried fruit. It’s also the easiest to digest.
At any age, Parmigiano Reggiano is a very nutritious choice. 100 grams (3.5 oz) have more than an oz of water, almost 1.2 of protein, less than 1 oz of fat, 0.05 oz of salt. It’s a high energy cheese, at about 400 calories each 3.5 oz.
Aging and ease of digestion go hand in hand and make the mature seasoning suitable for children and the elderly. It has a high-quality calcium content and is rich in numerous other minerals – like phosphorus and potassium – and essential amino acids.
Made with love, ideal for savoring
As an appetizer (18 months), maybe with a drop of balsamic vinegar or maybe wrapped in prosciutto di Parma, it’s a party on the cutting board and in the mouth. Lemon spaghetti goes well with this aging, and so does risotto with Champagne.
It’s lovely on fusilli (24 months) with wild arugula, extra virgin olive oil, and pine nuts, on top of a beef salad with watercress, chicory, pears, or as a mousse on top of pears with chocolate. You could go for something simpler, like a crunchy frittata with potatoes. Beat the egg mixture, add the cheese, pour it in a hot pan, add the potatoes (or other vegetables), then cook it slowly (or you’ll have an omelet.)
Fantastic (30 months) as a mousse on grilled scallops, on soft polenta or risotto with mushrooms, or egg-stuffed artichokes with a simple sauce. This aging is a good, if expensive, choice for fondue.
There are many great recipes floating online. But if you want the best original recipes adapted for the U.S., I’ve relied on the advice of Lynne Rossetto Kasper. Parmigiano Reggiano at its best, and many of the other gifts from the gods of foodies in my region.
“Ask an Italian where to take only one meal in Italy, and, after recommending his mother’s house, he will more than likely send you to Emilia Romagna,” says Kasper. That sounds about right. Dig in and enjoy.