I was recently presented with the challenge of writing a post about Parmigiano Reggiano. A challenge I hope to be able to speak about in some detail in a few weeks.
My first reaction was, you know I’m lactose intolerant ….but I can eat Parmesan (the English/lazier man’s word for Parmigiano Reggiano). My second was I love Parmesan. It has been my gateway back to cheese after being diagnosed (if that’s really what happens) as lactose intolerant my senior year in university (gratefully after the semester abroad in France). Shannon Tallman, local blogger and cheesemonger at the Whole Foods Market in Portland, is actually who helped me realize I could eat some cow cheeses. She started me off on Parmesan and now I’m happily eating aged Cheddars (I even attended a wine and cheese event at Whole Foods recently). Shannon and I became friends because of Parmesan. That’s the kind of cheese it is!
Parmesan is this cheese that stands up and says hey I have a story to tell, I’ve got dignity, history, character…it demands to be noticed. Ever wonder why it usually has its own table in the market?
Parmesan reminds me of the scene in “Dead Poets Society” when Robin Williams first meets his students and takes them into the hall and asks them to recite Robert Herrick’s poem “Virgins, To Make Much of Time” and then step forward and look at faces from the past (old class portraits) and whispers their legacy Carpe Diem! Seize the Day!
When figuring out where to begin writing about Parmesan, I turned to one of my food mentors, Nancy Harmon Jenkins. A terrific human being who inspires those around her to experience the world and eat well (and from the earth). Nancy is an accomplished writer and food historian who has spent a considerable amount of time in Italy. She told me about seeing Parmesan made at the Parma Cheese Factory and shared her photographs of this fantastic process.
Parmesan cheese is produced in five Italian provinces: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua. The region boasts more than 1,600 cheese factories (I read this, then asked Nancy and she said that number could well be true!).
Parmesan, Nancy explained is made up like most cheeses of morning (whole) and evening (skimmed) cow’s milk. The evening milk is left overnight to allow for the creation of bacteria, and then combined with morning milk. The starter culture is added and the cheese starts to curdle. Nancy’s pictures showed batches being made in huge copper vats by muscular men who were taught by the generations before them. They make two or three giant cheeses in each batch.
In the morning the workers coax the curds into a form, which will be suspended in a cloth, where the cheese’s form will take shape. They tie it to a bar so it can be lifted out and they drain the whey. The cheese is then put into a brine for several days to encourage the surface to harden. From there it goes into a warehouse that Nancy said looks like a cathedral with stacks of “great golden drums” she said are just beautiful.
The Cathedral of Parmigiano (photo used with permission by Nancy Harmon Jenkins)
For information on visiting the region and touring a factory, I recommend you check out this article in USA Today and Italy for the Gourmet Traveler by Fred Plotkin, which has a chapter on Emilia-Romagna with a short history on Parma.
With any luck and great determination, I hope to find myself back in Italy in the next two or three years (my last visit was to Rome a few years ago). In addition to visiting Nancy (what I can only imagine would be an amazing experience considering her knowledge and appreciation of the sources and taste of food), I would like to stay at the Le Occare Guesthouse after reading about it in Melissa Pellegrino & Matteo Scialabba’s book The Italian Farmer’s Table. For the more adventurous (remember, Carpe Diem!), the book has information on farms with restaurants and guest houses in Emilia-Romagna.
Now that we’ve covered how Parmigiano-Reggiano is made, how about we dig into it’s rich history. Okay, so I kind of really geeked out here and went all the way to Italy (via the Internet) to the Academia Barilla-Gastronomic Library. It was actually on a bit of a whim that I emailed them asking for the history of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and when a day later heard back from a curator was ecstatic.
The History of Parmesan:
768 BC – 264 BC – The Etruscans raised sheep and goats in the area of Parma
Sometime after 27 BC in Roman times – The cheeses produced in Parma were branded with the symbol of the moon. This is the first example of the branding of the cheese
11th century – During the Agrarian Revolution, monks in the Parma area reclaimed areas and began breeding cattle thus increasing the production and distribution of cow’s milk in the area.
14th century – Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries played a key role in the how the cheese was produced. The first official mention of Parmesan in writing is made in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which yes I purchased and read (the English translation, of course). The book is about seven young women and three young men in Italy who try escape the plague by taking refuge in the countryside and telling each other stories for ten days. Each day each of the ten tells a story.
Elisa, the fourth woman, tells a story on the eighth day about a painter called Calandrino who has a practical joke played on him. Calandrino is told of a wondrous region where there are magical stones and the mountains are made “entirely of grated Parmesan cheese, on whose slopes there were people who spent their whole time making macaroni and ravioli, which they cooked in chicken broth and then cast into the four winds.”
The joke does not end well, as practical jokes most often do not…but history was made.
15th century – The convent of San Giovanni, with four active dairies, two in Parma, and two in Reggio Emilia, was the biggest producer of Parmesan. However, by this time noble families had also begun to invest in the production of the cheese.
17th century – The first official formalization of the name of Parmigiano cheese was made by the Duke of Parma, Ranuccio Farnese, on August 7, 1612 in his essay on the economy.
18th century – Production of the cheese moved from the noble families estates to rural dairies, who sourced milk from various producers.
1898 – 10% of the Parmesan produced in Parma was exported abroad. The cheese was also called “Reggiano”.
1937 – The area of production of Parmesan was defined with the same boundaries that exist today and the term “Parmigiano-Reggiano” was made official in 1938.
1954/55 – The Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano protected the name “Parmigiano-Reggiano,” and specified it could only be made in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua.
And, with that let me just say (write) how grateful I am to be able to enjoy something with so much life. I am also grateful for having this post topic proposed to me, so now I may value the cheese so much more. As someone whose best days are spent visiting with producers, I greatly value the roots of our food sources. That this cheese is a product of so many people and years is pretty extraordinary don’t you think?
So, how about we get to eating some…
Parmesan and Sun-Dried Tomato Frittata
3 large eggs
2 large egg whites
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
1/4 tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup scallions, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup of Whole Foods Sun-dried tomatoes
- Preheat broiler.
- Beat (whole) eggs and egg whites together in a bowl. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan, parsley, sun-dried tomatoes, salt and pepper.
- Heat oil in a large broiler-safe nonstick pan over medium heat. Add green onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking about 1 minute.
- Pour the egg mixture into the pan from step 3 and tilt to distribute it evenly. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, undisturbed, until eggs are set on the bottom but the top is still runny, 3 to 5 minutes.
- Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan over frittata. Place the pan under the broiler. Broil until the top is set and turning golden brown, about 2 minutes. Serve immediately.
*The whole recipe only uses one pan!
Yield: 2 -3 servings, depending on whether serving with salad.
Eggs from the Great Cluck Egg Farm (of course!)
Parmigiano-Reggiano from Whole Foods Market
So good!! Wishing I could fork some right through the screen.
p.s. Recipes and Storage
One of my favorite comfort foods, the kind you want with a big bowl and spoon and to eat curled up on the comfiest of chairs is risotto. Well, you cannot have risotto without parmesan. Note, you cannot and oh by the way don’t feel obligated to use portion control here. Recipe calls for ½ a cup of parmesan and you want a wee bit more, well I’m certainly not going to tell on you. My favorite rissoto recipes are: Pumpkin, Sage, Chestnut and Bacon Risotto by Jamie Oliver from Amanda Hesser’s The New York Times Cook Book and Saffron Risotto from the Diner Journal No. 20 Winter 2012 issue.
Nancy’s book Cucina Del Sole is one of my favorite cookbooks. Her recipes for Pomodori Ripieni di Formaggio and Wintertime Pasta with Sausages and Dried Mushrooms are wonderful ways to nourish one’s self.
Through university one of my primary food groups was popcorn. Oh, you didn’t know it was a food group? Well, in college it was along with tuna melts and bags of Nutter Butters (don’t judge till you’ve pulled as many all-nighters as I did). In those days I blissfully enjoyed M&M’s in my popcorn. They’d melt a little bit and then you’d have that insane chocolate/salt combo. Somehow, perhaps sadly, I’ve outgrown that joy. And! Grown into a whole new one thanks to Joy W., the sweet author of Joy the Baker. Joy has introduced me to incredible combinations such as Parmesan Seaweed Popcorn (should you have made a wee bit too much, don’t dare throw any away as it keeps fine in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 48 hours). If you come over to watch a movie at my home, almost certainly I’ll pass you a bowl of this. Thanks Joy. ox
My adventure with Parmigiano-Regiano will continue in a couple weeks with this recipe for Asparagus Ravioli in Parmesan Broth, from one of my coveted issues of the sadly defunct Gourmet Magazine.
Storage: Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is where I learned how to buy and properly store Parmesan. She recommends buying a precut wedge, never in grated form. It should be a dewy pale amber color, without any dry white patches. Wrap tightly in wax paper, then heavy-duty aluminum foil. Store on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. (*While living in France during my university days I learned to store cheese in a plastic container so I wrap and then place the cheese in it…)
p.p.s. For those readers who are also lactose intolerant, I want to introduce you to Scott Rankin, Professor and Chair Department of Food Science University of Wisconsin-Madison. Rankin specializes in dairy and graciously has helped with a few queries over the past few months. He kindly obliged my request for information for the science on how I can digest Parmesan. I hope this reassures those of you who have sadly (unknowingly) held off. Here you go…
In short, milk has about 5% lactose. As milk is fermented, the bacteria use the lactose for energy. However, when a cheese is young, the fermentation process is still continuing and there is still some residual lactose around. After several months of aging, however, even that residual lactose is gone. Most US parm has been aged nearly a year before it is placed on the market. Some of the imported parm is aged for years. With all that aging, the lactose is usually long gone and thus poses no trouble for those with lact intolerance. – Scott Rankin
Molto amore and mangiare bene. ox
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