After I had finished eating Osteria Francescana's signature dish, Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in Different Textures and Temperatures, I was floored by how the dish was able to showcase all the different tastes and depths of this Italian national treasure. While waiting for the next course, I had decided that I had to go meet the "King of Cheeses."
Most people don't know how Parmigiano Reggiano is produced, so here is a crash course of its production at the 4 Madonne Caseifcio dell'Emilia dairy, where I had a tour this morning. I apologize in advance for any errors as I am recalling this from memory.
After the cows are milked (either in the evening or early in the morning), the clock starts ticking. Within two hours the milk must be transported to the dairy where it is placed in these copper vats. I believe the tour guide said it takes 6,000 liters of milk to produce a kilogram of cheese. These vats actually go a few meters into the ground and are conical. After the non-pasteurized and non-homogenized milk rests in these vats for 12 hours, the curds and whey separate with the help of rennet. The whey is used to feed pigs, used in cosmetics and food products, and this diary uses it along with water as a cleaning product due to it's acidity. The curds are then cut up and put in linen, which allows gravity to drain out even more whey.
Then the curds are placed are placed into the cylindric shaped of a cheese wheel with weights on top to press out even more whey. The exterior of this cylinder is a strip of plastic belt with grooves that engrave markings to denote that this is authentic Parmigiano Reggiano. This cheese has a protected designation of origin, meaning that it can only be called Parmigiano Reggiano if produced in only certain and specified locations of the Emilia-Romagna region. Everything else is a fake. For a couple of days, the wheels are flipped every few hours to ensure the moisture leaves the curds evenly.
Next the wheels have the plastic belts removed, and are placed into these giant pools of brine where they stay for 20 or so days. The salt not only heightens the flavor of the cheese, but it also preserves it, protecting it from all unwanted bacteria and mold.
Then the wheels are placed in a hot room that sweats out extra water and salt. After this, the cheese ages for 12 months, in which it loses even more moisture. After 12 months, officials from the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium come test each wheel. These musicians, using only a hammer, tap on the wheels and listen for any air bubbles or other defects. If a wheel passes the test, it is fire-branded with a seal of approval. From here the creamy, young cheese can be either sold or placed back on wooden shelves for further aging. Any wheel that doesn't pass has it's markings scratched out (since it is now second-grade, but still edible, cheese), remedied of it's imperfections, and cut up to sold. But not as Parmigiano Reggiano.
These wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano are aged for an additional 12 to 36 months. Dairies generally don't age cheese past 4-5 years. With each year, the wheel loses about a kilogram of moisture, allowing the flavors to become more intense. The texture also is firmer the older cheese is, and more granular due to amino acid chemistry. Additionally a machine cleans each wheel, removes the moisture that sweated out of the cheese, and flips it.
And this is how Parmigiano Reggiano is made.
Most Parmigiano Reggiano is made from Friesian cows, i.e. the iconic black and white ones, because of the sheer volume of milk they produce. This dairy and some small family productions also produce a special kind of Parmigiano Reggiano made from Vacca Rossa, a red colored breed that was the historical source for this cheese. The cheese made from this red cow tastes a bit different and is more creamy than Parmigiano Reggiano made from Friesian cows, even if it is a 48 month-old. This special Parmigiano Reggiano also goes through an additional set of testing and approval.
Parmigiano Reggiano is king for a reason. The taste of this cheese is so intense it's almost overwhelming, but one can detect all five tastes in a bite of Parmigiano Reggiano. Salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami—it's all there in this single perfect food. Indeed there is no equal.
If you would like to visit a dairy in Emilia-Romagna that produces Parmigiano Reggiano, you can find a list of dairies on the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium's website.