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Food & Beverages November, 12 2012

Behind The Scenes – The Making of an Italian Classic Part 2 – Parmesan

We return to Martin Pilkington’s Northen Italy report. Having already gone deep into the world of Parma Ham, he turns his attention to that all time favourite, Parmesan. Read on.

The next day brought a visit to the Caseifico San Lucio to see how the legendary cheese was made. Again it is in a very modern plant, as before stainless steel much in evidence, though as Igino Morini of the Parmigiano Consorzio explained they still make strategic use of wood, and before a new facility is ready to produce cheese it is prepared by having curds sprayed around it.

For anyone who has seen cheese made the Parmesan process holds few surprises, but the quality comes from the details: the master- (or in this case mistress-) cheese-maker deciding on the precise moment when the heated milk is ready for the rennet to be added (animal rennet, sadly for vegetarians), the delicate handling of the soft curds to avoid any cracks that would alter the end product and the near reverence with which maturing cheeses are approached. The raw material is inevitably of great significance too: that milk can only come from selected farms in the limited geographical area and not only can the cows not be fed on silage, but no silage is allowed on the farm to feed other animals because of concern about potential bacterial effects on the land.

As with the ham the inspection is independent, the inspector using a hammer to tap each hefty cheese in a set pattern, relying on the note given to reveal any softer places or even hollows that would mean imperfections within, and thus consign the cheese to non-Parmesanhood or even destruction.

Tasting three cheeses at the dairy, of 12, 24 and 36 months age, again shows the magical effects of time. We break small lumps of cheese beneath our nostrils to release the aroma, then chew them with nothing else to divert our attention. The youngster is fresh and lively; the 24-month version fruitier, with a hint of peach about it; and the 36-month deeply savory with lots of the taste the Japanese call umami.

We have a revelation here too: those little grains you get in older Parmesan are not, we are told, salt as I’d always believed, but proteins that have broken down over time forming crystalline amino acids, one of the building blocks of life. And here too wine pairings bring a surprise: with three-year-olds they suggest the obvious choice of big reds; but with younger cheeses they recommend champagne.

Both Prosciutto and Parmesan are protected in Europe by PDO legislation – Protected Designation of Origin, which means that only product made in the region according to the rules governing production and quality can be sold as genuine Parma Ham or Parmesan Cheese. This of course protects producers, but it is also good for consumers who can be confident about their purchase, sure that no short cuts have been made.

The results are consistently delicious, and in Parma and the hills around the city they are proudly available in just about every restaurant and bar of which there are a huge number. It really is amazing that such a place has any slender residents.

Martin Pilkington travelled courtesy of Discover the Origin and Fleishman-Hillard PR

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