Some tips to recognise the original Parmigiano cheese by colour, labels, symbols and trademarks.
To earn the name of Parmigiano-Reggiano and bear the trademarks and symbols which identify it as being a DOP product (which in Italy means a product of protected designation of origin), a “wheel” of Parmesan cheese must meet a number of standards laid down in a sort of dossier called a “specification”.
All of which means that it is guaranteed, due to its distinctive characteristics and its bond with a particular area of production, by a set of EU norms that have been implemented to safeguard both consumers and producers.
For a cheese to be called Parmigiano, its ageing process must last at least 12 months. More mature cheese is identified by a Consortium set up to safeguard Parmigiano Reggiano, which applies differently coloured labels to its packaging:
an orange label indicates a Parmigiano Reggiano DOP with over 18 months’ maturation: sweet and soft, with plant and floral notes, it is excellent served as an appetizer;
silver identifies wheels that have aged more than 22 months: tasty and crumbly this cheese gives off a fruity aroma and tastes marvellous when eaten with dry figs and prunes;
a gold label marks a very mature Parmigiano with over 30 months’ maturation and a taste that is ripe and intense.
“Mezzano” is the name given to a Parmigiano Reggiano that presents slight or modest defects in its consistency or rind, which do not however alter the typical organoleptic characteristics of this product.
The colour of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese should be that of straw in its various tones. Its depends on various factors, for example:
if it has been produced from the milk of cows that eat straw, it is paler than cheese obtained from the milk of those fed on grass;
light, air and temperature favour the processes of oxidation and may cause the surface of the cheese to turn yellowish or brownish;
the more mature the cheese, the more intense its colour will be.
Small holes within the cheese – the so-called “occhiatura” - are acceptable in Parmigiano Reggiano so long as their diameter does not exceed 2 mm.
Little white pin marks visible on the cheese surface are tyrosine crystals which indicate that the cheese is a mature one. This is an amino acid that crystallizes in the course of time, having been liberated when the proteins are broken down by enzymes. It is also tyrosine that gives Parmigiano cheese that gritty sensation when you bite into it. If they want to sell you a cheese as a mature one and you do not see these little white marks, you ought to ask for an explanation.