Culture: A Guide to the King of Cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano | Wine Enthusiast
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A Guide to the King of Cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano

With just three ingredients—raw cow’s milk, salt and calf rennet—Parmigiano-Reggiano, the so-called “King of Cheeses,” was born nearly a millennium ago.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is a strictly controlled product, not to be confused with other, non-European Union cheeses labeled “Parmesan.” It has intense aromas and flavors of fruit, nuts, butter and hay, and its high glutamate content produces a savory, flavor-enhancing quality. Parmigiano-Reggiano’s granular texture flakes easily when broken with the stubby, sharp-pointed “almond knife” traditionally used to break and cut the cheese. And those crunchy “cheese crystals” are desirable, a sign of long aging.

“I personally love the texture, the complexity of flavors and the ease of use of Parmigiano-Reggiano,” says Ihsan Gurdal, owner of Formaggio Kitchen, a 39-year-old cheese shop with two locations in the Boston area and another in New York City. “I think being made in the same way for the last nine centuries, its richness and nutritional profile and the large wheel size easily qualify it as the ‘King of Cheeses.’ ”

What Is Parmigiano-Reggiano?

Parmigiano-Reggiano received its protected status in Italy in 1955, and the European Union followed in 1992. That hasn’t stopped countless cheese makers outside the EU to market poor imitations under misleading names like “Parmigiana” and “Reggianito.”

True Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be produced in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and parts of Bologna and Mantua (the only province not in Emilia-Romagna). It also bears a stamp from the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium.

The huge wheels, which weigh about 90 pounds, are aged for one year and then tested by the Consortium. A good “beater” (or cheese tester) can determine worthiness in a matter of seconds with just a small percussion hammer and a screw needle used to extract a miniscule sample. Once branded, they can be sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano giovane (“young”), or aged another six to 12 months and sold as vecchio (“old”).

Parmigiano-Reggiano Fun Facts

● It takes more than 145 gallons of milk to make one wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It accounts for approximately 15 percent of Italian milk production.
● Italy’s Credem Bank accepts wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano as loan collateral. The bank has almost a half-million wheels stored in its warehouses.
● In Italy, babies are weaned on Parmigiano-Reggiano from a young age. Parmigiano-Reggiano stravecchio has high-quality and easily digested proteins, even for those who are lactose intolerant. The production and maturation process renders it lactose-free.
● Parmesan was a popular ice cream flavor in England during the late Georgian era.
● Parmigiano-Reggiano has a longstanding reputation as an aphrodisiac. While it hasn’t been formally studied in humans, a 2012 study claimed it caused increased sexual activity in rats.

Better examples are usually stravecchio (“extra-aged”). These are aged between two and three years, and they develop incredible depth of flavor. Some producers age wheels even longer. After four years, Parmigiano-Reggiano can take on notes of mushroom, spices, dried fruit, beef and tobacco. A few producers have aged wheels up to 12 years.

More than 300 producers make authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, and each have subtle but noticeable differences.

“Every producer is different,” says Gurdal. “Keep in mind this an artisan-made, raw-milk product. The quality of animals and their milks, the pastures—the more wild herbs, flowers and greens, the better—and also the craftsmanship of the cheese maker can all account for the differences among producers.”

Buying and Serving Parmigiano-Reggiano

Parmigiano-Reggiano Knife
Parmigiano-Reggiano Knife/ Getty

“My golden rule is to always taste before buying, to only buy what I need, and to make sure to get a fresh-cut piece the day before or the day I’m planning to use it,” says Gurdal. “Cut cheese has a short lifespan when it comes to retaining its texture and flavor in the fridge. You can slow down this process by keeping it wrapped in cheese paper and in the crisper drawer, but my experience when confronted with leftover Parmigiano-Reggiano is to use it as a binder, but not a main character, in my dishes. And always grate it at the very last moment, just before serving.”

One of the best ways to serve Parmigiano-Reggiano is in big, room-temperature chunks, as the star of a simple appetizer. It works well with sliced pears and toasted hazelnuts, dates and walnuts, or crunchy celery hearts drizzled with good olive oil. A few drops of authentic aged balsamic vinegar can enhance Parmigiano-Reggiano’s flavors without overwhelming them.

It’s a no-brainer in pastas and risottos, but can also play a key role in soups, salads, cooked vegetables, beef carpaccio and savory meat or vegetable pies. And despite the oft-repeated Italian rule to never put cheese on seafood dishes, some chefs just can’t resist utilizing a beautiful piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano successfully with fish.

How to Cut an Entire Wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano By Hand

Parmigiano-Reggiano Alternatives

Grana Padano is the cheese most closely related to Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s a great alternative, and usually at a slightly lower price. Its production is similar, but it has fewer restrictions with things like geographic delimitation and cattle diet, and is aged less on average.

Two domestic cheeses worth trying are Sartori Sarvecchio and BelGioioso American Grana, though they differ considerably from Parmigiano-Reggiano.

“And on a mountain, all of grated Parmesan cheese, dwell folk that do nought else but make macaroni and ravioli, and boil them in capon’s broth, and then throw them down to be scrambled for; and hard by flows a rivulet of Vernaccia, the best that ever was drunk.”—Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron. Written in 1348, it’s the first-known mention of Parmigiano-Reggiano in literature.

Gurdal encourages people to explore the world of Italian hard cheeses.

“My two favorites that compete with Parmigiano-Reggiano in my house are Calcagno, a Sardinian sheep’s milk grana, and Monte Veronese DOP di Malga, from Verona,” he says. “Calcagno is richer and gentler, and Monte Veronese has bigger, more pronounced flavors.

“Try Calcagno grated roughly over cooked greens or garden salads, and Monte Veronese over farm-fresh eggs or even grated and blended into fresh-ground chuck for amazing burgers.”

What about other Italian grana-style cheeses like Pecorino Romano?

“I like a less salty and non-mass-produced Pecorino Romano, and it’s definitely more affordable, but we’re talking apples and oranges here,” says Gurdal. “It’s not comparable to Parmigiano-Reggiano.”

The Wines to Drink with Parmigiano-Reggiano

Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the most versatile cheeses to pair with wine. It can handle white or red, sparkling or still. Crisp but richer whites like Marsanne and Roussanne, Pinot Grigio from Collio or Friuli Colli Orientali are all delicious picks.

For reds, try fruity wines with high acidity and low tannins like those made from Corvina, Barbera and Gamay. Amarone della Valpolicella, considered a classic pairing, offers a raisiny blend of concentrated fruit and power that complements the cheese much like balsamic vinegar does.

On the bubbly side, a not-too-dry sparkling wine can balance the salt, refresh the palate and bring out the underlying richness of the milk. Lambrusco is the wine of the Parmigiano-Reggiano region, and it combines the best qualities of both red and sparkling wine. All of these suggestions work with Parmigiano-Reggiano on its own, or in dishes like pasta or risotto, where it’s the dominant ingredient.

Three of Gurdal’s Picks

Villa Di Corlo 2016 Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro
Fondo Bozzole 2016 Cocai Spumante Brut Rosato Lambrusco Mantovano
Tiberio 2016 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo

Three of Our Picks

Ferraton Pere et Fils 2014 Les Miaux Marsanne (Hermitage); $75, 91 points
Braida di Giacomo Bologna 2015 La Monella (Barbera del Monferrato); $19, 89 points
Ronco Blanchis 2015 Pinot Grigio (Collio); $20, 89 points

Finally, to enjoy Parmigiano-Reggiano by itself as a cheese course before dessert, Gurdal says “it’s always lots of fun with a Vin Santo, especially more aged wheels. Isole e Olena Vin Santo is my favorite.”

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