An elegant farm Parm from the plains

This cheese is special on pretty much every level you can think of. Located in the lowlands of the Po River Valley, Valserena is the oldest Parmigiano dairy in the Parma district. It’s one of the few farmstead Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses still made—all the milk comes exclusively from the Serra family’s herd. They raise the animals, grow the feed, milk the animals and make the cheese right on the farm. Their herd is made up exclusively of the rare Sola Bruna (brown) cows. This old breed makes up less than ½ of 1 percent of the country’s dairy cows. (Another tiny minority are the white cow, the Vacca Bianca Modenese, and another still are the Reggiano, or red cows, or Vache Rosse). The vast majority of the herds are Friesians, which were imported from the Netherlands. They produce milk at a much higher rate, but the quality of the milk never matches what comes from the older breeds. The brown cows actually do much better in the heat than the most common Friesians, as the latter came down from northern Europe and are better suited to colder climates.

The Sola Bruna are beautiful animals. Graceful, gentle, with furry ears and friendly faces, they’re known for producing smaller quantities of milk, but the milk they give is particularly rich in butter fat. Valserena is one of four dairies that solely use the milk from the breed. As a result, the Serras have a special bas relief stamp that’s pressed into the top side of each wheel showing the seal of the Consorzio di Sola Bruna. It is, so to speak, a Consorzio within a Consorzio; the Sola Bruna folks abide diligently by the standards set by the larger Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano, but then, on top of all that, they have their own strict guidelines which all of its members commit to. First and foremost being that all the milk used for the cheeses must be only from Brown cows.

The land at Valserena also has an exceptionally long and rich history. Currently run by the 5th generation, the family has been farming the land since the 18th century—the Serra and Balduino families, both of Genoese origin, signed the papers to purchase it in 1879. The family has been breeding cows in the same location ever since. In the old days, the land was sharecropped and there were hundreds of peasants with smallholdings and small herds contributing to cheese made at the farm’s dairy. Some of the families working the land at that time still reside on the family lands to this day. Today, they have about 225 cows being milked, from which they make a modest 12 to 14 wheels of cheese a day.

Located down on the flat lands of the province of Parma, the fields of the farm spread out from either side of the road. The Serra’s land is all on what Italians refer to as the pianura bassa, “the low plains.” If you pull off the road and turn into the stately old two-story estate house’s old central courtyard you can park, and then make your way to the right side of the compound into the Serra’s small cheese shop. And there, by tasting the cheese, you’ll know that you’ve arrived someplace special. If they’re not busy and you say you’re from Zingerman’s, someone might be willing to walk you across the courtyard to see their office. Why, you might wonder, would you want to do that? Most cheese dairy offices are just a collection of metal file cabinets, some lab equipment, maybe a few corny calendars given gratis by dairy industry suppliers. But the Valserena office is every bit as storied and elegant as the cheese itself. The room looks more like a lovely old, small, off-the-beaten path, country museum. Drawers are full of old, hand drawn water diagrams from the region; essentially the equivalent of “blueprints” for how to channel irrigation and rainwater from field to field. Water management, after all, was one of the keys to successful survival in centuries past, and in some ways still today—the plans date to the work of 13th century monks who lived in two monasteries that were once on the land.

The elegance of the old-world file cabinets and the quaintness of their contents don’t change the cheese at all, but they do add depth to what is already a great cheese success story. The brown Swiss cow first started to appear in the region around 1870, but got more attention when they became a favorite of Professor Antonio Bizzozzero in 1892. The family became big proponents of Bizzozzero’s plan to cross breed brown Swiss with local herds, and they are mentioned by Dr. Giovanni Menapace in his book Agricoltura Parmense (i.e., Parma Agriculture) written in 1937, as being among those who followed in the teachings of Professor Bizzozzero. Antonietta and Giovanni Serra have records of their ancestor starting to go to Switzerland, the home of the Brown Swiss cows, to buy bulls to bring back for breeding in the tail end of the 19th century. The result was the now storied Sola di Bruna that makes up the Serras’ herd.

In honesty, beautiful as the estate and the cows are, I don’t think I’d want to live there. In summer, temperatures regularly go over 100°F and the humidity can make Michigan feel like Arizona. Because the soil is so soft, farmers can’t afford to let the animals graze the land. In fact, the animals never leave the barn. “If you let the animals out on a rainy day, literally in one day they can destroy the grass altogether,” Karl Heinz Berthold, a long-time friend and colleague and one of the most respected experts on traditional cheese I’ve ever met, explained. To preserve the soil’s integrity and farmer’s ability to plant it effectively, the crops are harvested and then brought to the animals in the barn! Rather than the cows going out into the field, the Parma producers bring the field to the cow. While this adds enormously to the cost of making Parmigiano-Reggiano, it’s the only sustainable way to maintain the soil and still be able to raise cows. Long before Domino’s started doing pizza, these cows were having dinner delivered every day. Parmigiano-Reggiano is the only cheese region I can think of that one can drive through for hours without seeing a single cow as you drive through acres and acres of farmland!

The actual cheesemaker at Valserena is Lal Madan, who came to the region originally from India. He and his team (who also came from India) do a superb job with the cheese. They incorporate a slightly higher percentage of fat into their Parmigiano, giving it a richer flavor and creamier texture. They intentionally work to have relatively low salt levels—it’s a bit riskier for the producer since lower salt increases risk of problems, but of great benefit to us as cheese eaters because the lower salt puts the creaminess of the cheese way out front. Having tasted Valserena cheese over twenty-five times in the last year, I will say that it’s consistently excellent. I haven’t tried a bad one yet. I’m not alone—in the last year, of 1600 cheeses they produced, only a single wheel received a substandard grade from the Consorzio’s strict judges!

The Valserena cheese is also unusual for its size. The family produce 41 kilo wheels—a few pounds heavier than the more typical Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. “They can do this because they control the whole process,” Karl explained. “The bigger wheels take longer to age but they are willing to wait in order to get better tasting cheese.” The results are excellent. Just as bigger loaves of bread generally taste better, so too do the larger wheels of Parmigiano seem to be preferable. There’s a bit more depth to the flavor, a vibrant maturity that helps make eating it such a pleasure.

Like all producers of Parmigiano-Reggiano, they grow most of the herd’s feed on their own land. Last year they got a formal “GMO-free” certification due to their work with the crops. Not only is the breed known for great milk, but the Serras are known for taking particularly great care of their animals. It helps that Antonietta is a trained veterinarian. You can see the care in the condition of the animals. Bright eyed, clean, engaged, lively of spirit. The Serras’ gentleness is rewarded with the excellence of the milk. The animals live longer and produce milk much longer than most commercial herds. And, of course, the better the milk, the better the cheese.

The flavor of the cheese itself is, of course, what’s really at issue. It’s the culmination of all the above factors and probably fifty more I haven’t touched on. A pale straw color, very rich, buttery, soft flavor – consistently excellent. It’s luxurious, really. To me it reflects the place it comes from—stately, grounded, with a high level of excellence in every tiny detail! It’s delicious on its own. Fantastic on a plate of just cooked stuffed pasta with butter. In the region, they say that they “drown the tortellini with butter” and then “rescue them” with copious amounts of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Great with a delicate honey—acacia would be excellent.

All of which, again, adds up to something very special. I’ll close with a quote from importer and friend Carrie Blakeman who has worked with artisan food producers all over the world for years. “There is something extraordinary about the Serra’s. A family that lives & breathes the land, the animals, their gifts—with sweat, trials, Pride, honor, generosity & patience. Their cheese is exceptional. Every time I taste it makes me smile.”