We are in San Gimignano, a small town just outside of Siena, Italy. Tuscany is very special. At the moment we are lying by the pool being eaten alive by mosquitoes (it has become a competition of who gets the most bites- I’m winning so far with 30-something) but it’s a minuscule price to pay for the exquisite setting and incredible hospitality we have experienced at Agriturisimo il Segreto di Pietrafitta. Also, no we do not want to buy insect repellent because that means one less pizza, or one less glass of wine- neither of which we are willing to trade.
Italy so far has proven to be, as we expected, a spectacular food affair. One of our Italy bucket list items was to visit a Parmigiano Reggiano ‘factory’. The visit to 4 Madonne has become one of our favourite days in the trip so far, and the fascinating process behind the famous cheese is something we are still thinking about. We thought we would let you know about the ins and outs of the process and hope you find it as fascinating as we did.
Parmigiano Reggiano is produced to a very specific set of standards, highly regulated and controlled as well as protected by law. The cheese can only be produced in a specific regions, those being, Parma, Reggio, Emilia, Bologna (only a small area west of the river Reno), Modena and Mantua (again only a small area south of river Po).
The milk has to come from cows in that region that are fed a specific diet. 4 Madonne produces Parmigiano Reggiano from two types of cows, the traditional Italian Friesian and the ‘Red’ cow. The Red cows are left to roam in the field for 10 months only eating grass. The cheese produced is slightly different in flavour and has a much lower yield than the black and white Friesian cows which are on a slightly different diet of extremely high quality food (legally monitored and approved by the consortium) and grass.
The milk has to be extremely fresh. It is usually used around 3-4 hours after milking. If the milk is older than this it cannot be produced. The factory receives this milk first thing in the morning, meaning they can only produce the Parmigiano Reggiano in the morning. Should the factory request a delivery of milk in the afternoon, the farmer is required to report them as it means the milk will be too old for legal use.
Parmigiano Reggiano is an unpasteurized lactose free cheese. The unpasteurized fresh milk contains certain bacteria and enzymes that when aging ‘eat’ the sugar in the cheese, resulting in lactose free product.
A brief summary of the process:
- Fresh milk brought in and blended to a set ratio with skim milk. It is then heated to 33° and split into curds and whey in copper vats.
- When heating the curds to 50° they combines and sinks to the bottom making a ball that is cut into half and then wrapped in muslin cloth, hung on a belt and sent into the next room for ‘Pre Salting Stage 1’.
- Here the cheese is imprinted by wrapping in a ‘belt’ containing supplier name, license, details etc. and placed under a heavy disc to force out any liquid. This process takes 24 hours. The cheese arrives weighing about 50kg and will leave at about 42kg.
- ‘Pre-salting 2’: The cheese is enclosed in stainless steel belt for 2 days in order to give it the typical wheel shape. During both of these phases the cheese is flipped by hand to achieve consistency.
- Brining: the cheese is submerged for 20-25 days in a cage in a tank filled with salt-water solution. This creates a hard protective shell around the cheese preserving it and contributing to the salty flavour.
- This initial process takes almost a month to complete! The wheels of cheese are then moved to the warehouse where they are stored and further aged.
The warehouse is a sight to behold. 33 000 wheels standing at a value of €5 million of perfectly created Parmigiano Reggiano stacked on shelves right to the roof. If you look at it too much it starts to feel like an optical illusion.
The regulations don’t stop there. These wheels are carefully rotated and cleaned by a machine every 10 days in the warehouse to avoid sweating and contamination by the wood. After 12 months of aging they are given their first ‘test’. A specialist will come in and beat the cheese with a small hammer, if the sound is correct it is burned branded with approval. If the sound is not correct it is marked with stripes and the specialist will return in 3 months to conduct another check. They must then sell this cheese within 18 months. If the cheese fails the test for the second time is cannot be given the branding but can still be sold at a lower price. If the cheese has air bubbles or any liquid it is considered waste and fed to the pigs. The earthquake that affected the factory in 2012 resulted in a €1 million loss of produce- they were either sold at a dramatically decreased price for a 3 month period or given to the pigs (at this point I am starting to envy those Italian pigs).
Parmigiano Reggiano has no expiry date and can age indefinitely. The cheese just becomes harder, stronger and changes colour. Every part of the wheel can be eaten, including the rind, it is not plastic or wax, just beautiful salty, hard, cheese. According to the staff at 4 Madonne the rind is the best part.
As you can see the process is very serious and closely monitored. The amount of care and attention to detail that goes into producing every single wheel is astonishing. Absolutely nothing is added to this cheese, apart from the salt in the brining process, making the product all the more special. It is not hard to understand why Parmigiano Reggiano is considered the King.