Confession time-I’ve been kind of dreading today. How do I sum up perhaps the world’s greatest cheese in under 800 words? I must be extremely parsimonious because I love this cheese. If it were human and available, I would marry it, I would bear its children. This will not be an unbiased review.
I’m not the only one who feels this way about Parmigiano-Reggiano. Many correctly feel it is the best cheese on earth, it’s certainly the most useful. Put a little parm in anything and it’s just better. That’s scientific fact. Before I proceed, let’s clear something up. What the Italians call “Parmigiano-Reggiano” is what everyone else, French, English and North Americans call Parmesan, it’s just a spelling thing. However, there’s one big difference. Parmigiano-Reggiano is DOP-a protected name as is Parmesan-in Europe only. In the USA and Canada only Parmigiano-Reggiano is protected-the name Parmesan isn’t. Thus, many people are snookered into thinking that can of grated “parmesan” at the super market is the real thing. It is not! You could never get away with that bullshit in Europe. So remember, darlings, don’t buy it unless it says Parmigiano-Reggiano, because it isn’t.
There are over 400 Italian producers of Parmigiano Reggiano,(I’m calling it PR now for short, OK?) both large and small called caselli. All PR is controlled by a consortium called the “Consorzio” that upholds and controls the regulation of the cheese and has done so for the last 800 years. Holy Hannah, these Italians and their cheese! PR is only made from the raw milk of cows grazing on fresh grass and hay within a specified zone. The recipe is at least 800 years old and attributed to Benedictine monks.
Parmigiano-Reggiano (PR) is actually a lower fat cheese, as it is made from a combination of skimmed evening milk and whole morning milk. It’s the earliest branded cheese- all PR is stamped with the words Parmigiano-Reggiano right in the rind itself. After the cheese is formed it is soaked in a brine for about a month. Then it goes into the cellars to mature from between 18-36 months, where it is visiting for a flipping and inspection once a week. When the cheese reaches 12 months the Consorzio inspects every cheese by tapping it with a hammer and listening to the cheese-if it passes it is then branded with the Consorzio’s logo-if not, it’s stripped of all markings and is filled with shame.
The thing is, not all PR is created equal. Even with the controlling consortium looming over all makers with its little cheese hammer and brand in hand, some PR is better than others. My Parmigiano-Reggiano is called Vache Rosse. Historically Reggiana, a red cow, was the main breed to produce milk for PR. Get it?Reggiana=Reggiano. It was later replaced by the more productive black and white cows, and by the 1980’s Reggiana were virtually extinct. However, some producers have brought them back for the specific purpose of making a PR the way it used to be. The Fanticini dairy, family-owned produces small quantities of “Vacche Rosse” using this Reggiana milk. Apparently the milk of the red cows is higher in butterfat and protein and makes this PR the real, real old-school thing. It’s putting the Reggiana back into Reggiano. It also allows this cheese to be aged longer, at least 30 months.
My beautiful slice of Parmigiano-Reggiano Vache Rosse sits quietly beside me. It’s very hard and dry looking, with nice crystallization flecks. The paste is a dark yellow and the rind thin and unremarkable. The smell is mild, yet warm and inviting. It promises good things.
Oh, I just got shivers up and down my arm at the first bite. It’s sweet! It’s fruity, and tangy…and crunchy. It’s so full of flavour, so incredibly piquant. The flavour also changes as you chew it, becoming more intense as it melts in your mouth-releasing little taste pockets like cheese “pop rocks.” The texture is crumbly and dry, yet it dissolves on the tongue with only the slightest encouragement, and then allows the taste to explode. It’s fantastic, just amazing.
OK, here’s the thing-this cheese is seriously the bomb, and deserves all the love and attention it gets-but I have two issues with this. First, because of the popularity there are many fake and wannabe parm’s out there-so a little care is needed to make sure it’s the real thing. And second, yes it’s fabulous, but so is a lot of other Italian cheese which is just lost in the shadow of PR-for instance, the Piave I tried the other day-just as good, and in some ways, a more toothsome cheese-but who has heard of Piave? Yes, Parmegiano-Reggiano is a great cheese, but is it the best? I reserve judgement.