Parmesan cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, is a staple of Italian cuisine. Come with me to discover how Parmesan cheese is made. We’ll hop on and off wheels of cheese, between dreams and doubts.
A staple food
Parmesan is the finishing ingredient of so many primi dishes, like pasta and risotto, but it is also used to season all kinds of vegetables, like spinach, cauliflowers, and more. It’s also delicious on its own. Italian mums think it is the healthiest food, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see one of them saying to their children ‘Have a piece of parmigiano, it’s good for your bones! Parmesan makes you grow healthy, strong, and beautiful!’.
Is it good for you?
Now, sadly I don’t know much about nutritional facts. As I was intrigued by this constant parmesan cheering, I have asked for advice to a qualified friend and did a bit of research. Of course, I shouldn’t have doubted mums’ wisdom (indeed, mum if you are reading this, I know you are always right hehe). Apparently, Parmigiano Reggiano is a healthy cheese, low in cholesterol, with lots of calcium and minerals, and very easy to digest as it is an aged cheese.
Now is parmesan cheese what you need to grow healthy, strong, and beautiful?
I am still searching for answers. That’s probably why it took me more than a month to write this blog post. I initially thought not to publish it altogether. I then decided that this blog is a journey so even inconclusive posts are okay if one day they will lead me to find my way forward.
What I can tell you for sure is that I love parmesan. I bring a stash of parmesan with me every time I come back from Italy. I treasure it in the fridge and smile every time a parmesan rain falls on my pasta. Yum!
When I was able to finally visit home this summer, Riccardo and I had the unique opportunity to see how it is produced.
We went on holiday to Emilia Romagna – this incredible region producing all sorts of Italian essential ingredients, like balsamic vinegar.
I was emotional to say the least, I’ve always dreamt of hopping from one wheel of parmesan to another.
Is it good for the planet?
However, once I got to the farm producing the parmesan cheese (an organic farm with the highest standards) I started doubting my dream and in general, my heavy consumption of any kind of cheese.
I truly believe in the sustainable consumption of food. I truly believe what we eat can make a difference for the planet.
Now, cow milk and cow cheese are enormous businesses. I was born and raised with them – I come from Lombardy, an Italian region striving on these produces.
Cow milk and cow cheese are also culinary habits of the majority, me included. In England, you finish off every important meal with a bite of cheese. In France, I’d say cheese is a religion.
I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror though without stating a fact: they are not good for the planet. Our current consumption of cow milk and cheese is not sustainable.
The dairy industry has also cruel practices. Calves are separated from their mothers 2 hours after their birth, and most of them are immediately slaughtered. The cows produce milk for maximum of 6 years, once their milk production is over, they are also slaughtered.
At this point in my life, I personally decided to avoid cow milk and limit the consumption of cheese. Slowly, in my own time, I am discovering plant-based alternatives or enjoying that parmesan on pasta knowing it is a special rare moment.
This is my own choice, and I will never want to dictate or preach specific lifestyles. Everyone needs to find their way, better though if it’s an informed and conscious choice.
I will now tell you what I saw on the farm but keep in mind that this farm is not the norm. As I said, it is an organic producer making a very limited amount of cheese aging from one to three years.
If you want a bigger picture of the diary industry, there are so many documentaries out there, from the famous cowspiracy and the milk system, and even lots of podcasts, like Scary Dairy by All Kale. I’d also love to have more recommendations from you in the comments, as I keep searching and finding my way.
Back to the origins
That’s because this cheese needs a very special type of milk, with intense bacterial activity. The bacteria are determined by what the cows eat – the grass, forage, and hay that are only available locally (no silage or fermented feeds are allowed).
The milk bacterial activity is what allows the cheese master (in Italian mastro casaro) to produce the milk, as Parmigiano Reggiano doesn’t use any type of external intervention. It is a purely natural cheese.
It has 500 cattle and 300 hectars of crops to feed the cattle. It has also pasture areas to improve the cattle’s wellbeing.
How it is made
The process to make parmesan cheese has thousands of years of history.
It takes around 550 liters of milk to produce each wheel. Their wheel of organic cheese weighs around 35 kg and costs more than £1000.
The cheese production starts with the coagulation of milk thanks to the addition of rennet and a whey starter (coming from the previous day’s production). The curd is broken down by the mastro casaro into granules. These granules get together into a cheese mass when cooked at 55 C.
The mastro casaro breaks the mass into two twin wheels by using a traditional linen cloth. The wheels are placed into a mold that gives the parmesan its typical form. Each wheel is now marked to trace back its origin.
After a few days the wheel is immersed in water and salt. Now the Parmigiano Reggiano is ready to do its magic.
It is a slow maturation lasting a minimum of 12 months and that can go up to 40 months and more. The Mastro Casaro checks their wheels every fifteen days to make sure they are sleeping okay.
At their first birthday party, the wheels of cheese are tested. The quality inspector taps the surface of the cheese with a little cute hammer. Based on the sound, the inspectors can recognise whether the cheese is good or not. Now that’d be a fun Italy’s Got Talent performance to watch!
The wheels with full marks get the equivalent of a golden star, a hot-iron mark reading ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’.
Parmesan cheese, yay or nay?
Parmesan is now waiting to be served on our tables, on top of pasta, risotto or enjoyed after a meal with a few grapes or a dash of balsamic vinegar.
Whether this is a luxury to savour or abandon, I am yet not sure, I’ll leave the answer to you.