In my hometown, there’s a little grocery store where I pick up my cheese. I pay for it, bag it, and take it home to enjoy – without a second thought of what it’s made of, who made it, where it came from or what it took to get there. When I was living like a local in Bologna I got to go behind the scenes a lot. I got to watch how experts made authentic foods like the time I was at Gelato University. I was also invited backstage to the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory in Parma, Italy. I got a glimpse into the cheese-making process before it hits the grocery shelves, in a city I think must be the cheesiest place on Earth. I even made a video to prove it!
Travelling to Parma (a quick day trip just north of Bologna) I learned there is parmesan and then there is Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s a pretty important distinction that has changed the way I buy cheese. (Keep on reading because I think it will change the way you look at it too). It’s a highly regulated product with specific characteristics which means not all parmesan cheese can be called Parmigiano-Reggiano.
It’s the Law
There is a law by the European Union that helps protect traditional foods and cultural specialities in Europe. (Amazing! There are actual governing bodies trying to protect the authenticity of a culture!) It’s called Designation of Protected Origin and it’s enforced locally by the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano. Whenever a product has the DOP stamp of approval it means it meets all the rules for production, quality and ingredients. It also helps to preserve the history and tradition of that product and the local producers behind it.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is a DOP cheese
Cheese can only be called Parmigiano-Reggiano if it’s made exclusively in Parma or Reggio Emilia regions of Italy and is made by specific producers.
It must be aged for a minimum of 12 months but can age up to 3 years
Dairy producers have to be certified to make Parmigiano-Reggiano (right now, there are only 200 producers legally allowed to make and distribute the cheese)
Each and every cheese wheel must be inspected before it gets its signature “dots” and stamp.
It must be made in the same traditional method.
Cows are only allowed to eat hay and they’re never milked more than twice a day.
Raw milk is not allowed to travel more than 2 hours to the factory
Production time from milking the cow to making the cheese cannot be more than 20 hours.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is Sustainable
Parmigiano-Reggiano is completely sustainable – from it’s process to it’s ingredients. The organic and traditional production process has been passed down by 40 generations of cheese masters since the 1300s. The cheese makers here depend on little technology and handmade techniques – the same techniques used by cheese masters 800 years ago. Cows are never over-milked in the process, fed unnaturally, or raised in confined feedlots.
There are only 3 main ingredients in real parmesan - locally sourced milk, salt, and a natural enzyme from cows called rennet. Thats it. No preservatives. No colour. Its nutritional values make it one of the healthiest cheese you’ll eat. Fake parmesan cheese has other ingredients like cellulose powder, sorbic acid, and cheese cultures that are illegal in Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Visiting the factory in Parma has changed the way I look at cheese. Since I met the cheese masters here, I’ve gained a renewed appreciation for locally-produced products. Now, whenever I go to my grocer’s cheese department at home I feel like I could actually see that block of cheese in my hand being churned in a big copper tub. I understand the long way my cheese has traveled to get to this shelf and I have a new admiration for the hard work the local farmers do to produce something so all of us can enjoy. I only buy products with DOP labels on it now because I know it will help preserve the history and tradition of that product and the local producers behind it.
Getting There: via Trento, 32, Parma. It’s a quick day trip from cities like Bologna, Florence, Milan or Genoa.
Cost: You can book a guided tour for free. Depending on time of year, it’s best to book well in advance.
Next week, I’ll show you how to eat this cheese like a local!
More in this series:
A First Taste of Local Life in Bologna
To Imola with Wine
The Medieval Town of Ferrara
The Other Leaning Tower of Italy
Porticos of Bologna
The Culture Behind Italian Gelato
The Oldest Wine Bar in the World