Emilia Romagna: Parmigiano Reggiano
Do you know the difference between Parmesan and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese? When you sit down to a meal and they pass the real thing, grated Parmigiano Reggiano, do you take it for granted? Do you know why the authentic cheese is expensive? A couple of years ago I visited one of these cheesemakers, and realize I never shared that with my readers. Well let me fix that right now, and take you on a little tour through a cheesemaker in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, home to the one and only Parmigiano Reggiano.Weather is the reason this part of Italy produces the things it does, and for cheese it’s specifically that it’s hot in the summer, but cool in the winter. And this is all that’s made here – no other cheese is produced in this region. The process starts with these huge vats.It takes 1000 liters of milk to produce just two wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano……and the entire process is controlled by a consortium – everything from cleanliness and quality to aging and labeling.These curds will be cut in half to make two wheels of Parmigiano ReggianoProducers consolidate their milk in one facility to make cheese, and you can see this is back breaking work. We’re told of their love for the work, but that they only spend about 4 hours at home during the days they are making cheese.After the curds are lifted up from the whey, the cheesecloth is pressed into the large molds, and then a weight is put on top.The plastic interior of the mold is what imprints the name and the year, and that’s how you know you are buying true Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.The cheese will rest for three days in these wheels before finding their way to the salt water baths…… where the cheese will sit for 25 days and the wheels will be turned daily. It’s this soak in the salt bath that gives the cheese its characteristic salty flavor.Then the wheels will be removed from the bath and the aging process begins. Parmigiano Reggiano is aged from 6 months up to 5 years, but you will mostly find the range of 24-36 months in stores in the US.When I toured this facility, I surveyed the room holding the cheese, and I did the math mentally. Each wheel is worth about 500 euros, the room holds 3000 wheels, and the room is about 30% full – that’s nearly half a million euros worth of cheese in this room. No wonder they utilize the cheese bank who loans the producers money until the cheese is ready to sell!Want to plan a trip to this part of Italy? Bologna is the biggest city in the region, although we didn’t visit because we were coming from a different direction. The towns of Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Parma are all close together and can be easily reached by car. We chose to stay in Reggio Emilia because it’s in the middle of the three towns, but they are all about the same size (165,000 – 180,000 people), and all have a similar look and feel – less touristy than other parts of Italy with more of a working class feel to them. Our hotel was the Hotel Posta, a four star hotel in the center of town. We ate a local restaurants that were filled with locals, visited markets, and just wandered through the small towns. You don’t need a lot of time here – 2-3 days is plenty – and this is a nice stop as you pass through this region of Italy.