Matt and I found a last minute deal to Bologna and made a quick decision to spend a weekend there. I moved quickly and found an 8 hour food tour to include in my month of matt celebration. I surprised him with some clues about a tour on Friday night. We took the tour on Saturday, leaving our hostel at 6am to make the trek out to Moderna. Our first stop was a cheese factory where we got a chance to see the entire process to make Parmigiano Reggiano DOP.
You're probably thinking 1 of 2 things right now. "Wow you went all the way to Italy to see how Parmesean is made? I have a ton of that in my fridge."
What if I told you that isn't the same as Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano? Don't get me wrong, I like the Kraft stuff, but I LOVE real Parmigiano. Or if you are one of the many people who know that Kraft Parmesan and Parmigiano are not the same you are thinking "yes I go to a high end food store to buy my real Parmesan cheese" well there are also tons of wedges being sold to look like Parmigiano but actually are imposters made in the US and South America. (more on that later)
First a little lesson on geographical indications. DOP, or PDO as it is known in the US, is a mark certifying the geographical indication placed on specific types of food that have a Protected Designation of Origin. Basically that means that there are specific rules and laws governing the food production and certain quality standards. The easiest example to think of is Champagne coming only from the Champagne region of France, otherwise it is a bubbly white wine. Many types of food and drink have DOP/PDO protection: cheeses, wines, tequila, coffee, and more.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is nicknamed "the king of cheese" because the production quality and the ingredients have been perfected for over 800 years, making it incredibly consistent. Parmigiano Reggiano is only allowed by law to have 3 ingredients: milk (from cows in the Parma/Reggio region), salt, and rennent (an enzyme from calf intestine). Not only do the cows have to be from the specific designated region (only 5 areas around Parma and Reggio are allowed) but cows are also under a specific diet and if it gets sick or requires antibiotics of any kind the milk cannot be used.
One of the rules is what required us to wake up so early in the morning. The milk to make the cheese has to come from the cow within a 24 hour time period. The early morning crew of workers making the cheese are actually using milk that was milked from the cow the night before, while the night crew uses milk that was milked that very morning. Incredible dedication to cheese making.
Once the cheese is made and coagulates it goes into molds that are standardized across every Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory. The wheel is incredibly large - about 80 pounds and the size ensures consistent texture across factories. The wheels are soaked in a salt bath for 18 days and then placed in humidity controlled rooms (which smell fantastic) for 18-30 months.
After 12 months an inspector comes in and taps every single cheese wheel with a special hammer to ensure quality. We had a chance to tap a perfect Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheel and one that was rejected and you can hear the difference in them – the reject producing a more hallow sound due to holes in the wheel.
The whole cheese portion of the tour was extremely eye opening for me. Apparently in the US at upscale food stores they are selling many cheeses to the less informed under many many names. You can find Parmesan, Parmigiana, Parmesana, Parmabon, Real Parma...I could go on and on. If you go to an artisan cheese store look at the rind. All Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has the name imprinted over and over on the rind with words Parmigiano-Reggiano, as you can see in the picture above.
If you see a rind with the seal crossed out that means it was made in a Parma factory but did not pass the inspectors test. We had a chance to try some of this cheese as well and it still tastes amazing so don't be scared to buy it.
I apologize for the potato quality video but I wanted to share a couple of clips I had (via snapchat) of the making of the cheese. Enjoy!