Though much of our two weeks in Italy was spent learning about and tasting the country’s magnificent wines, we couldn’t turn down a lesson in another Italian specialty: Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The Art of Parmigiano-Reggiano at Caseificio Censi in Emilia Romagna
Thanks to Antica Corte Palavincina, the Keeper Collection team had the chance to observe the expert cheese makers at Caseificio Censi in Polesine Parmese. Our guide explained that to be called Parmigiano Reggiano, it must be produced exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna, between the rivers Po and Reno. We were lucky enough to see first hand just what goes into this complex and traditional practice from the experts themselves, where Parmigiano-Reggiano is king.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is unique from other cheese varieties due to the highly regulated process that goes into its creation. All aspects, from the specific type of animal feed used to the time-consuming aging process, must meet strict standards. The milk must come from either grass or hay fed cows, living only in western Italy, thus producing grass fed milk. The breed of the cows are specific as well.
We learned that Caseificio Censi produces 60-64 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano daily, beginning with a 5 a.m. wake up call every day of the year, no exceptions. The milk from the evening milking is left to rest until morning in large vats, where the fatty part rises to the surface. Overall, we were told that it takes 1,000 liters of milk to make just 2 wheels of this exceptional cheese.
Whole milk from the morning milking is brought to the cheese factory and the skimmed milk from the night before is poured into bell-shaped copper cauldrons, where calf rennet and fermented natural whey culture are added. The whey protein within the milk must be cooked to 55-60 degrees Centigrade,
then the cheesy granules sink to the bottom to form a single mass.
The curd which forms is broken down into minuscule granules using a traditional tool called spino.
Then the cheese remains in a plastic bag for 24 hours, followed by 2 days in a steel tank to keep the product from cracking. As you can see in the video below, this still requires many hours of manual labor.
Each cheese wheel is given a unique number with a special marking band engraving the month and year of production onto the cheese, along with the registration number and dotted inscriptions around the circumference of the wheel.
In addition to these important factors in production is the aging process that is vital to creating a superior cheese. Before the aging begins, the wheels soak in a salt solution for 21 days. This is the more traditional method, invented by monks who utilized salt as a way to preserve milk for long periods of time. The wheels are then aged for one year.
Perhaps one of the most important factors in the manufacturing of Parmigiano-Reggiano is keeping the cheese in perfect condition, as cracks significantly reduce the price the cheese can be sold for. For example, just one wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, if flawless, is easily sold for 500 Euros.
The Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium does an inspection after 12 months to approve each cheese. Our guide explained that if a wheel does not meet the consortium’s grade, such as failing due to surface cracks, then the Consortium’s representative will remove the unique markings on the rind, so the cheese cannot be sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano. When you buy Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, our guide said to make sure that it has a piece of the rind attached with the markings to insure that you are getting what you paid for.
Seeing this hands-on, traditional process made the Keeper Collection team feel as if we had traveled back in time. Quality and purity of the final product was of the upmost importance to the cheese makers at Caseificio Censi, and we couldn’t imagine a better way to truly immerse ourselves in the Italian food culture.