‘Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese’, observed Chesterton, but Italy's most famous cheese, grated on millions of plate of pasta daily, is an exception. It appeared in Boccacio’s Decameron; although the description is about the Basques, it sounds very much like Emilia-Romagna:
…in a region called Cornucopia, where the vines are tied up with sausages. And in those parts there was a mountain made entirely of grated Parmesan cheese on whose slope there were people who spent their whole time making macaroni and ravioli.
When the London Fire broke out, rescuing his precious wheel of Parmesan was one of Samuel Pepys' first thoughts. One of casualties of the big Emilia-Romagna earthquakes in May 2012 were the stores of Parmesan: some 300,000 wheels were destroyed, a loss estimated at €200 million.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced in a delimited area around Parma, Modena and Reggio Emilia. Each great wheel is made of 100 litres of rich milk solids, given by cows grazed on the lushest meadows in Italy, and heated to 40˚C while being stirred.
The solid lump that forms is sieved through cloth, placed in a cylindrical container and mixed with brine. A month later a brown crust forms, and the cheese is stamped with its place of origin. After another seven months or so it is tapped with a hammer; a hollow sound means troublesome bacteria has formed within, and surgery is performed to preserve the cheese.
A year is the minimum ageing period, but the longer it sits in the cheese vaults, the sweeter and fuller the taste. A two-year-old cheese is called vecchio, at three years stravecchio, and at four years stravecchione. This makes an excellent dessert cheese, and comes with a sprinkling of balsamic vinegar.
You even choose where the cow that gave the milk for the cheese once grazed: pianura (the Po Valley), colline (hills) or the most prized of all, vacche rosse di montagna (red cows in the mountains).
A New Test of Authenticity
The essential difference between Parmigiano and its close but less pricey cousin, Grana Padana is that cows producing the milk for Grana Padana are allowed to eat fermented fodder (silage) while the cows producing Parmigiano may only eat fresh grass. In 2016,researchers at the University of Parma announced that they have come up with test to catch cheaters.