Parm Project 2017

The Power of Parmigiano Reggiano Taken to New Heights

Did you know?

Not all Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses are the same. We’ve scoured Italy for the best of the best!

Thanks to the good work of the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano®, founded in 1934, we’ve found 5 excellent cheeses to offer. The Consorzio—and every farmer and cheesemaker who’s a part of it—have long been committed to making and purveying a top-quality product. All the cheese that bears the P-R name must meet very high standards. 339 dairies are authorized to make the cheese, using milk from over 3000 farms and over a quarter million cows. Over 50,000 people work to make it all happen. The entire process is regulated. The cheese must, by law, be produced in the designated districts of Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena, a small part of Mantua and another small slice of Bologna. The feed for the animals must come mostly from the farms themselves; a small amount can be brought in, but still has to have been grown in the region. The milk must come only from the region and is never pasteurized. Each producer uses partially skimmed evening milk, combined the next day with whole milk from the following morning. Unlike most cheeses in the world today, starter is never purchased—every dairy makes its own (which works like the sourdough starter for bread). No additives are ever allowed. Just raw milk, salt, starter and calves’ rennet are used. All the cheeses are made in carefully spec’ed copper kettles. Every cheese dairy is closely inspected and every single cheese is checked by the Consorzio experts before it can be given the prestigious Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio “firebrand” and have its side panels show off the now famous “pin dots” that spell out its name.

Quality aside, this project is a concerted and focused effort to achieve long-term, sustainable excellence. How to take our Parmigiano Reggiano offerings to championship levels!

What makes the difference from one cheese to the next?

Well, pretty much everything you can imagine. While Parmigiano-Reggiano is properly and elegantly well-branded as a broad category, the truth is that there are so many variables that it’s actually a marvel that this still hand-crafted, authentically artisan cheese actually comes out well as often as it does. Here’s some of the big factors we can control for in our selection:

The mass of the cows in the region today are Friesian Holsteins—the same “industrial” breed that is used by most dairy farms in the US and produce about twice as much milk per cow per year as the old breeds. They give high volume, but less interesting milk. Certainly, there are exceptions as there are to every rule, but in general, the best cheeses are likely made from the milk of the old breeds of cattle (or goats or sheep). While the yield from those “old” herds is always lower, the flavor of the milk, the quality and ratio of the fat and proteins, contributes a lot to better cheese. In the area of Parma and Reggio we came across limited quantities of Brown cows, we saw Reggiana “Red” cows and the very rare “white cows,” a red and white cross. Most of the great dairies seem have at least some of these old breeds in their mix.
Not surprisingly, what goes into the cow has a big influence on what comes out. All of the Parmigiano-Reggiano farmers are required to produce at least half of what they feed their herds. The soil makeup and what the farmers choose to use for feed will always alter the flavor of the milk. That is, literally and figuratively, the nature of the beast. 75 percent of the feed for Parmigiano-Reggiano cows is required to be from the district in which the animals are grazing so that the flavor of the milk will reflect the character of the local terroir. Generally, the mountain areas have more interesting vegetation in the meadows and hence mountain milk is often complex in its flavor.
All Parmigiano-Reggiano milk must be at the dairy within two hours of milking and all of it must be unpasteurized. That goes a long ways toward keeping the baseline high for this great historical cheese. But there are other nuances. Less pumping of the milk—which can be avoided by using gravity feeds—tends to yield better cheese. Also, it was interesting on this last trip to learn that although Parmigiano-Reggiano is historically made from partially skimmed milk, some dairies have now taken to adding more cream back (or skimming less cream). The result makes for a creamier texture but slower aging. You can do it, but to make it work, you need to adjust your sense of “time.” One source told us, “What is now sold at 24 months reminds me of what a 17-month old cheese used to taste like when I was young.” In choosing our new dairies we consciously tried to stay away from cheeses that were made this way. They taste good for a casual first bite, but the finish and balance are off.
Although all of the basic recipe and aging are effectively outlined by the Consorzio, there’s still room for the casaro, the master cheesemaker, at each caseficio to work in ways that impact the final cheese significantly. For instance, by keeping temperatures in the maturing rooms lower than usual throughout the year, cost conscious dairies save money. But it hurts flavor development. By contrast, one of our new dairies—Borgotaro—sticks primarily to traditional methods and matures the cheese at almost exclusively ambient temperatures as has been done for centuries. (There was, of course, no refrigeration back in Roman times.) In the summer that means more hot days, more sweating for the cheese, greater concentration of flavor for you and I to enjoy!

The Cheeses

The Crème de la Crème; The Best of the Best

Right now, we have five different offerings in house. At times, we might have more; at other times, less. But our drive, our commitment, our new belief is that we serve you best by having a nice range of top notch, terrific tasting cheeses from different dairies, of different ages, different milk sources, and of course, different flavors. Try them all together to really appreciate the contrast. Or taste them at the counter before you buy in order. Or if you’re feeling generous, order up a few pieces and send them to a parm loving friend. Unless they’ve lived in the home region of Italy, you’ll make their day. I know my own Parm consumption has increased dramatically since we started getting these exceptional cheeses!