The Art and Science of Parmesan Cheese Production: A Detailed Journey

Parmesan cheese, known in Italy as Parmigiano Reggiano, is a staple of Italian cuisine, renowned worldwide for its unique flavor and texture. The process of making Parmesan cheese is a delicate blend of art and science, steeped in centuries of tradition. This article will take you on a detailed journey through the fascinating process of Parmesan cheese production.

The Permitted Area of Production

The production of Parmigiano Reggiano, or Parmesan cheese, is strictly regulated by the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium and is limited to a specific geographical area in Italy. This area includes the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and parts of the provinces of Mantua (to the right of the river Po) and Bologna (to the left of the river Reno).

This region, located in the Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy regions of Italy, provides the ideal conditions for producing Parmesan cheese. The quality of the grass and hay fed to the cows, the climate, and the traditional methods used in these areas all contribute to the unique characteristics of Parmigiano Reggiano.

The strict geographical designation is part of what makes Parmesan cheese a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product. This means that only cheese produced in this specific area, following the traditional methods and meeting the quality standards set by the Consortium, can be sold as Parmigiano Reggiano. This ensures the authenticity and quality of the cheese and protects its reputation on the global market.

What the cows eat
The journey of Parmesan cheese begins with the cows, which are fed a strict diet as per the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium’s rules. The cows are primarily fed on locally grown forage. The use of silage (fermented, high-moisture stored fodder) or any animal-derived feed is strictly prohibited. This diet, rich in natural and high-quality fodder, contributes to the unique flavor profile of the cheese.

The milk used in Parmesan production is a mix of the evening milk, left to stand overnight, and the fresh milk of the morning. This blend of partially skimmed and whole milk creates the perfect balance of fat content needed for the cheese.

The Origin of Milk
The journey of Parmesan cheese begins with the cows, which are often fed a strict diet of locally grown fodder. This diet contributes to the unique flavor profile of the cheese. The milk used in Parmesan production is a mix of the evening milk, left to stand overnight, and the fresh milk of the morning. This blend of partially skimmed and whole milk creates the perfect balance of fat content needed for the cheese.

The Crucial Part of the Rennet
Rennet is a crucial ingredient in the cheese-making process, including the production of Parmesan cheese. It is a complex set of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminant mammals, such as cows, goats, and sheep. The primary enzyme in rennet, called chymosin or rennin, plays a key role in coagulating milk, turning it from a liquid into a solid mass of curds.

In the context of Parmesan cheese production, calf rennet is added to the milk blend during the cheese-making process. The rennet acts on the milk proteins, causing them to coagulate and form curds. This is an essential step in the process as it separates the solid curds, which will go on to become cheese, from the liquid whey.

The use of calf rennet in Parmesan cheese production also contributes to the final flavor and texture of the cheese. The enzymes in the rennet continue to act on the cheese during the aging process, breaking down proteins and fats and leading to the development of complex flavors and a distinctive, granular texture.

It’s worth noting that the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium’s rules specify the use of natural calf rennet, ensuring the traditional methods are adhered to and the quality of the cheese is maintained.

The Cheese-Making Process
The cheese-making process starts early in the morning, around 5:00 AM. The milk blend is poured into large, copper-lined vats, and natural whey starter and calf rennet are added. The whey starter is a by-product from the previous day’s cheese-making, containing lactic acid bacteria that help ferment the milk. The rennet, an enzyme from calf stomach, coagulates the milk, turning it from liquid into curd.

The mixture is then heated and stirred until it reaches the right consistency. The curd is broken up into tiny granules using a traditional tool called a ‘spino’, and then cooked at a specific temperature. This part of the process requires a skilled hand, as the size of the curd granules and the cooking temperature can significantly affect the final product’s texture and flavor.

Shaping and Salting
After cooking, the curd is left to settle, and then it’s scooped up in a piece of muslin cloth and shaped into a wheel using a special mold. The cheese is then left to rest and cool, during which time it begins to solidify and take on its characteristic wheel shape.

The next step is salting, which is crucial for both flavor and preservation. The cheese wheels are soaked in a solution of water and salt for about 20 days. The salt penetrates the cheese, enhancing its taste and drawing out moisture to help it harden.

The Art of Aging
Once the salting process is complete, the wheels are transferred to the aging cellars. Here, they are stored on wooden shelves and left to mature for a minimum of 12 months, and often much longer. During this time, the cheese undergoes a series of natural transformations under the careful watch of the cheese master. The moisture continues to evaporate, and complex biochemical processes occur, leading to the development of Parmesan’s distinctive savory, nutty flavor.

The aging process is an art in itself, requiring careful control of temperature and humidity, regular turning of the cheese wheels, and periodic inspections to ensure quality. Only when the cheese master deems the cheese ready – often after 24 months or more – can it be branded as Parmigiano Reggiano and sold to consumers.

The aging process is a critical phase in the production of Parmesan cheese, where it develops its unique flavor, texture, and aroma. This process happens in special aging cellars and can last from a minimum of 12 months to over 36 months. Here’s what happens to the cheese during this period:

Evaporation: The cheese wheels are stored on wooden shelves in the aging cellars, where they are left to mature. During this time, moisture in the cheese slowly evaporates, causing the cheese to harden and concentrate in flavor.

Biochemical Transformations: The aging process also involves complex biochemical reactions. The enzymes in the cheese, originating from the milk, the added starter cultures, and the calf rennet, break down proteins and fats into smaller molecules. This process, known as proteolysis and lipolysis, respectively, leads to the development of a range of flavors and aromas. For example, proteins break down into peptides and amino acids, contributing to the savory, umami taste of the cheese.

Texture Development: As the cheese ages, it also develops its characteristic granular texture. This is due to the formation of calcium lactate crystals, which occur as a result of the ongoing biochemical transformations. These crystals give aged Parmesan its distinctive crunchy texture.

Quality Control: Throughout the aging process, the cheese is regularly inspected by the cheese masters. They use a small hammer to tap the cheese wheels and listen to the sound it makes, which can indicate if the cheese is maturing correctly. Any wheels that do not meet the strict quality standards are removed from the aging process.

Branding: Only when the cheese master deems the cheese ready, often after 24 months or more, can it be branded as Parmigiano Reggiano. This is done using a special mark of origin fire brand, which guarantees its quality and authenticity.

The aging process is a testament to the patience and skill of the cheese makers, transforming simple ingredients into a culinary masterpiece over time.