What do storks have to do with the making of parmesan cheese? Read on to find out!
On our way from Bologna to Parma, our group made a couple of stops along the way to learn about the making of parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar. We began our day at Madonne Caseificio Dell’ Emilia for a tour of their parmesan making factory. Our guide was excellent; a wealth of interesting information. As we watched from behind large windows, she explained the process in detail.
(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)
First, it is important to note they make Parmigiano (Parmesan) Reggiano, which can only be produced in the Emilia-Romagna region with cows from those region, although the cows can be different breeds. The cheese is named after two of the provinces in that region, Parma and Reggiano.
“Parmigiano Reggiano” and “Parmesan” are protected designations of origin for the cheeses under Italian and European law. Outside the EU, all bets are off, so we aren’t talking here about that powdery stuff you buy at Walmart in the green can, folks.
Parmesan Reggiano must be aged a minimum of twelve months, although it is typically sold after 24 to 100 months of aging. Every cheese wheel is inspected by hand under strict regulations, and if it passes inspection, it receives a certification and serial number, which is stamped on the side of the wheel, along with the date of production. This firebrand is proof the wheel is the real deal—and, excellent quality.
During the inspection process, a special hammer is used to tap on the wheel. The sound made is indicative of the quality, and we were taught what the perfect parmesan wheel should sound like when it is tapped.
A wheel of cheese typically weighs about 92 pounds; however, the older the wheel, the drier and smaller it will be. It will also make a higher-pitched sound when tapped with the hammer.
These cheese wheels are valuable! Depending on the age, a wheel of Parmesan Reggiano can cost anywhere from $550 to $2,000. The inventory of cheese in Madonne’s huge store room is worth more than $17 million, if you price them each at $550! (5% of the 33,000 wheels fail the monthly inspection.)
Back to the cheese-making process, that guy in the black hat is the Cheese Master. It takes fifteen years of experience to get to that level, so he is an expert at overseeing his team and the cheese.
Those big vats you see contain about 290 gallons of part skim mixture of cow’s milk. It is heated, and then whey is added and the temperature raised. Calf rennet (enzymes) is then added, and the mixture curdles for 10-12 minutes. The curd is then broken up mechanically into small pieces, and the temperature is raised again. It is left to settle for 45-60 minutes. Next, those workers in the next row of vats are taking the compacted curd, dividing it into two parts, and wrapping each one in muslin, which will be placed in molds. Eventually, they will become two wheels of cheese.
But, wait! What about the stork? Our knowledgeable—but serious—tour guide, explained in a very straight-faced way that the “stork” carries the “twins” off into the next room where they are placed in molds. She said this without cracking a smile. We thought it was hilarious! The jokes started flying, Bruce and Oscar were cracking me up.
After seeing the room where the “twins” were placed in molds with a weight put on top, we were led to the next room where our guide explained the wheels were placed in massive tanks of brine to absorb salt for 20-25 days. I couldn’t resist. “Is this where the twins take their naps?” We joked about the stork and twins for the remainder of the trip.
Next, the cheese wheels are transferred to aging rooms for 12 months for another nap. (When they were in their molds, the “twins” were named by being imprinted with “Parmigiano Reggiano,” the plant’s number, and the month and year of production.)
The final nap takes place in that huge “nursery,” where they are placed on wooden shelves. At 12 months, they will be inspected by the Consorzio Parmigaino Reggiano. The wheels that pass inspection get heat-branded with the Consorzio’s (consortium) logo. And, that my friends, is how babies—uh, Parmesan Reggiano cheese wheels—are made.
After sampling various ages of Madonne’s delicious cheese, we were off to learn how the Malpighi family has been making balsamic vinegar in Modena, Italy since 1850.
Check out the balsamic vinegar in your kitchen. If cooked grape juice isn’t the first ingredient, it is not a good-quality vinegar. It shouldn’t have caramel or other additives.
The best Italian balsamic vinegar is from the Modena region, and the grapes must be from that region. It is aged for a minimum of twelve years. Different woods are used for the barrels, and after one year of aging, a percentage of the large barrel’s contents is transferred to a smaller barrel made of different wood. This process continues through a series of smaller and smaller barrels.
When the vinegar is ready for bottling, it is sent to the consortium for evaluation by a panel of experts who do a blind tasting. If it passes, it is bottled and sealed at the consortium in clear spherical glass bottles with a rectangular base. Only this type of bottle is allowed and producers are identifiable by a small label on the bottle.
The color of the bottle cap distinguishes the age. A 25-year-old balsamic vinegar gets a gold-colored cap. Malpighi’s most-aged balsamic was on sale in their shop for Euro 450—more than $450!
We tasted several different varieties of Malpighi balsamic vinegars and enjoyed a wonderful lunch of various salads, meats, and cheeses paired with their vinegars. The most memorable was the balsamic-filled dark chocolates for dessert, following the fresh strawberries topped with balsamic vinegar! I purchased a box of those chocolates to bring home.
During our ride to Parma, it was very quiet on the bus as most of the group napped while I watched the beautiful scenery pass by.
Next up: PROSCUITTO IN PARMA—AND MORE!