Each wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano that is approved by the Consorzio receives the official brand. Parmigiano wheels are enormous, weighing 80 pounds. All photography provided by the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano.
STEPHANIE ZONIS focuses on good foods and the people who produce them. Click here to contact her.
Updated February 2010
Parmigiano-Reggiano, The King Of Cheeses
Whey To Go ~ November 2006
Page 2: Red Cow Parmigiano And Shopping & Serving Tips
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“Red Cow” Parmigiano
Is there something better than top-quality Parmigiano? Yes: It’s Parmigiano-Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse, Parmigiano-Reggiano from Red Cows. Even better than the finest consorzio product, it is made from the exceptionally rich and creamy milk of the original milk source for Parmigiano-Reggiano, the Pezzata Rossa, a breed almost extinct by the by the late 1980s. Like the Jersey cow, its milk has a deliciously higher butterfat content and more milk proteins; but it isn’t a high-yielding cow. After World War II, as the old artisan ways began to succumb to efficiency, it was replaced by the higher-yielding Friesian. The result: a less-rich Parmigiano. The other result: The breed began to die out, since only a few committed farmers would keep less profitable herds. Over the last 25 years, some herds have been reestablished, thanks in part to the Slow Food Movement, and are now being used to produce small quantities of this true connoisseur’s Parmigiano-Reggiano (it’s twice the price of regular Parmigiano).
The combination of higher butterfat and more proteins allows for the production of a cheese that is better suited for a longer period of aging, producing a 30-month-old cheese instead of the 24-month aging period of most other Parmigianos. The extra aging yields a cheese that is uniquely nutty, fruity and grassy, with a flavor that is richer than most Parmigianos. The texture is more creamy, even though the cheese is aged for a much longer time (the rule of thumb is, the longer the cheese is aged, the drier the paste). This is a special-occasion cheese: Serve it as the cheese course, in chunks, drizzled with 25-year-old (or older) balsamic vinegar.
You can purchase Parmigiano-Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse at iGourmet.com and MurraysCheese.com. Note that some wheels are aged beyond three years, sometimes to five years. In general, steer clear of them: Super-aged wheels can be sandy, dry and excessively salty, and paradoxically, will lose the nuanced complexity that you seek in an aged Parmigiano.
Photo above: The entire 80-pound wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Note the stamp of the consorzio, which says Parmigiano-Reggiano, around the side, and the oval brand of the Vacche Rosse, with cows in the center, on the top.
Unless you’re an importer or a smuggler, it would be difficult to oversee the handling of a Parmigiano wheel in transit from Italy to the U.S. But there are things to look for to improve your chances of getting the full-flavored Parmigiano for which you’re paying handsomely.
- Never buy pre-grated Parmigiano. Truthfully, I haven’t seen this offered for sale much, but if you do, pass it up. You have no idea how long ago it was grated, and, like, pre-ground pepper, a lot of flavor and freshness can disappear from pre-grated Parmigiano in just a short time. Grating cheese doesn’t take very long, and you’ll be rewarded with a fresher, better-tasting product.
|The Zyliss Cheese Grater has drums for both fine and coarse grating and is dishwasher safe. Put a piece of cheese in the center and turn the handle. Click here for more information or to purchase.
||The Oxo Plane Grater, simpler to use, has a 4" x 2" grating surface and bi-directional stainless steel blades. Click here for more information or to purchase.
- Don’t buy vacuum-packed or sealed-in-plastic pre-cut wedges of Parmigiano. If you were vacuum-sealed, you’d suffocate, and the same sad Fate can befall these wedges.
- Do look for a repeated “Parmigiano-Reggiano” in pin-dots on the cheese rind, and look for uneven edges if you buy pre-cut wedges. This shows that the Parmigiano was cut with a special knife designed for splitting this Italian royalty into pieces more manageable for the home consumer.
- Look, too, for marks branded on the side of a wheel reading “EXTRA” or “EXPORT.” Either mark indicates that the dairy asked for an extra inspection of this wheel (aged for at least 18 months), and that the wheel had been found free of any flaws, internal or external.
- If possible, taste the Parmigiano before buying it.
- Don’t think that the minute crystals often found in Parmigiano are a defect, or salt. They are neither. As the Parmigiano is aged, the proteins in the cheese break down into component amino acids. Some of these re-form into a crystalline structure through natural processes, and these form the crystals you sometimes bite into. Far from being a flaw, crystals like these are considered one hallmark of a carefully made and well-handled Parmigiano.
So precious is the Parmigiano-Reggiano name and concept that there have been lawsuits over it. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a D.O.P. (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta, or Protected Designation of Origin) product, meaning that it can be produced only in a limited geographic area and that its qualities or features are due to a combination of natural and human factors existing within this area. In fact, as the result of a lawsuit initiated in 1999, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2002 that “Parmesan” is not a generic term, and that companies may not produce “Parmesan” cheese in Italy, where Parmigiano-Reggiano is a registered product.
Enjoying The Cheese: Serving Suggestions
Presumably, dear reader, you already understand that Parmigiano is used extensively in pasta dishes. But Parmigiano’s uses should not be confined merely to pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano makes a great table or dessert cheese.
- I eat curls or chunks of it all by itself or with good seasonal fruits (apples, pears, grapes and dried fruits are my favorites).
- Pour a few drops of a good balsamic vinegar over your Parmigiano for even more enjoyment; some people prefer to drizzle honey over their Parmigiano instead.
- You can also sliver Parmigiano into a green salad, grate it into your “mix” for meatloaf.
- Use the rind to flavor soup (remove the rind before eating the soup).
For its rich, full flavor, great texture and versatility, all hail the king!
Cheese Of The Month
I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count. The Cheese of the Month is Parmigiano-Reggiano, of course. If you’re lucky, you can find it in an upscale market or good cheese shop in your neighborhood. If not, try Murray’s Cheese, Ideal Cheese or Zingerman’s. Good Parmigiano-Reggiano doesn’t come cheap, but a little can go a long way in flavoring a dish. Murray’s has three varieties from which to choose, last time I checked; Ideal and Zingerman’s have one apiece.
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