Not too long ago I was in Parma, Italy, for the Campionato Mondiale della Pizza with a few members of The World Pizza Champions and Pizza Today magazine. While there, we had the pleasure and privilege to take a tour of a dairy that produces Parmigiano-Reggiano. Upon entering I had no idea what went into making the cheese. For starters, the cattle and the milk they produce are held to very high standards. The diet of each cow is very important since it will have a huge effect on the milk produced.
The dairy that makes the cheese is run by a dairy master that is in charge of overseeing the process but does not own the milk or cheese. In essence, each wheel of cheese that is stored and undergoing the aging process at a dairy is owned by a different person. The process itself is very intensive and specific. Unlike certain products made in the U.S., the process of making Parmigiano-Reggiano is still done by touch, feel, knowledge and instinct.
Once the milk has been collected, it sits in vats until it is ready to be used. The milk is transferred into large cylindrical tanks where it is then heated. Parmigiano-Reggiano is actually a non-pasteurized cheese. While the milk reaches a high temperature, it is never boiled. It becomes safe to eat through the aging process. Once it is ready and the curds have separated, it is cut using a special tool and transferred to giant round wooden forms and cheesecloth. The workers then tighten the molds and flip them every few hours to ensure an even drying process. After sitting in these molds for about a day, they are then transferred to metal molds in which the iconic seal and other important information is put on the cheese. After sitting like this for a period of time, each wheel of cheese is transferred to a deep bath full of salt water. Each wheel is flipped daily, for about a month, to ensure an even salting. It is by this process that each wheel of cheese closes out its production process and moves into the maturation stage.
After the salting process, each wheel of cheese is transferred to the warehouse and stacked in rows on wooden shelves where it begins to age. As the cheese matures the outer portion of the cheese hardens to create a natural crust. This means every part is edible. By law, every wheel of cheese must undergo a minimum of 12 months aging and it is only then that it will be critiqued and judged on whether it is suitable for selling. Every wheel of cheese is inspected by the Consortium, also known as the Control Body in charge of inspection. If it is deemed suitable, it is given a firebrand and seal to be exported and sold. Depending on the color of the seal it tells the buyer how long the cheese has been matured for. Red means it is 18 months old, silver for 22 months and gold for 30 months. It is only after this entire process that a wheel of cheese can be labeled Parmigiano-Reggiano. Every person that takes a part in the long process of making a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano takes pride in their job and the product they make. It is a product that is held to the highest of standards and is always of a high quality. Now that I have seen how the cheese is made first hand, I appreciate and understand why it is considered one of the best. The process it undergoes is long, arduous and full of tradition. But it is by these traditions and high standards that Parmigiano-Reggiano is revered, unique, protected and cherished.
RESPECTING THE CRAFT features World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Sacramento. Tony compiles the column with the help of his trusty assistants, Laura Meyer and Thiago Vasconcelos. If you have questions on any kitchen topic ranging from prep to finish, Tony’s your guy. Send questions via Twitter @PizzaToday, Facebook (search: Pizza Today) or e-mail email@example.com and we’ll pass the best ones on to Tony.