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'Eat'aly - Part 3: 6 Mistakes I Made about Parmigiano Reggiano

ITALY | Wednesday, 13 August 2014 | Views [1168]

Being an avid food enthusiast, I am all too familiar with Parmigiano Reggiano, one of the most popular Italian cheeses. I cooked it, I ate it, I obviously should know a thing or two about it. Wrong! My previous notion about this hard cheese turned out awry, shattered completely once I undertook a guided tour of Caseificio La Traversetolese, a cheese factory located in the province of Parma. All dressed in hygienic disposable clothing (or as my guide humorously remarked, “very fashionable Armani apparel”), I embarked on a mission to dispel any misconceptions.


1. “I should avoid it like the plague ‘cause I’m lactose-intolerant.”

I think there is three types of people who should not be enjoying this heavenly cheese: the ones who are allergic to cows’ milk, vegetarians and vegans. Bless them! The folks who are highly sensitive to dairy products due to lactose-intolerance could unworriedly have a bite of Parmigiano Reggiano. Despite being a dairy product, its lactose content diminishes sharply during cheese making process as most of that is drained off with the whey.  The remaining amount in the curd is transformed into lactic acid during ripening (aging), leaving behind merely trace of lactose. In fact, they can opt for good-aged cheeses to savour rather than avoiding dairy product all together.

2. Parmigiano Reggiano is just for grating on pasta

Grating Parmigiano Reggiano on pasta dishes. (Yum!) However, Parmigiano Reggiano is also excellent on its own. True Parmigiano Reggiano imparts a sharp, complex fruity/nutty flavor in harmony with strong savory taste, which is accompanied by a crunchy texture (from countless whitish granules of cheese crystals). Pair it a good Italian wine and be sent straight to heaven.  The pronounced flavor takes over the senses, all the richness and aroma, then is cut through by the acidity of the wine, and further lingers in the back of the mouth even after being washed down. The combination of pungent cheese and tangy wine is the classic, for me, that will never be outdated.

Parmigiano Reggiano can also be stirred into soup or risotto, or shaved over other dishes other than pasta. My favourite is Parmigiano Reggiano crust, crisp and salty!

3. Parmesan = Parmigian Reggiano

Just a second…, that is true…, but only in Europe. The name Parmigiano Reggiano is PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) which refers exclusively to the Parmigiano Reggiano manufactured in a limited area in northern Italy. It is regulated that the name “Parmesan” also refers solely to the qualified Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, not the faux one. That being said, outside Europe, particular in the US, the so-called “Parmesan” is used to name the imitation products, which by no means are authentic. Some of these cheeses are actually quite good, in my opinion, but once I tried the true Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy, there was no going back. Nothing beats the real deal!

4. Parmigiano Reggiano manufacturing nowadays is completely automatized

If that is not true then how on earth they manage to produce enough cheese to meet that insane level of demand? Efficient and experienced personnel are the answer. Again, Parmigiano Reggiano is a protected dairy product, thus strictly required rather rigid traditional procedures.  These include, by hands, breaking milk curds using oversized long-handled balloon whisk, collecting compacted curds in muslin, moulding into wheels, imprinting with necessary info, testing, sorting and sealing. Nonetheless, the presence of machines is not disallowed and I reckon it helps a lot since it caters all the heavy work. Imagine transferring by hands 38-kilo cheese wheels through different stages, stacking them on shelves as high as two-storied house to ripen, and cleaning every single one of them every 7 days… (Grazie mille, inventors!) Interestingly, when it comes to cheese testing, humans can even rival machines. I saw a master grader examined his cheese just with a hammer and his ear. By tapping the wheel at various spots, he could identify undesirable cracks and voids within and therefore determine whether the cheese is a prime or not. A machine provided the same result by x-ray-scanning the wheel for defections.  The expert was ten times faster than the machine and just as accurate. I could not help but stood there in awe!

5. Its nutritional value does not differ clearly from its original ingredient: milk

Milk may be considered a great source of calcium, but Parmigiano Reggiano is particularly rich in that. On average, for 100g of milk, 113mg of calcium can be found, whereas with the same amount of cheese, that figure increase to 1184mg. Moreover, it is higher in protein compared to milk, 35.75g to 3.22g for every 100g. Keep in mind though that Parmigiano Reggiano is also concentrated with fat and sodium, eight and thirty-seven times more than milk respectively. I must limit my consumption to a healthy dose then, in spite of how irresistible it is. (Sigh!)

6. Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma have no other relations beside being originated from same region and… tasting good on same plate

As a matter of fact, its by-product, the whey remaining after milk curds are collected, is utilised to feed the pigs from which Parma ham is produced, following traditional methods. No wonder the two pair so well together!


Tags: cheese, eataty, emilia-romagna, passport & plate: italy 2014

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