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Parmesan From A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Parmesan From A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Facts and figures you maybe don't know about Parmesan cheese, or Parmigiano-Reggiano: an authentic icon of Italian taste and excellence around the world.

By FDL on

Almond knife. A special knife used not only for cutting but also for prizing open whole wheels of Parmesan, or Parmigiano-Reggiano as it is called in Italian: its blade is almond-shaped, hence its name, and since it is shorter than any normal knife it has to be gripped by its short stubby wooden handle.

Banquet. An open wheel of Parmesan cheese will crown an aperitif at wedding banquets and other celebrations, especially in Italy: the guests are invited to help themselves by cutting soft yet compact flakes of cheese directly from the wheel.

Counterfeit. Parmesan (Parmigiano in Italian) is also the cheese which boasts the highest number of imitations worldwide and, for this same reason, its name is protected. But the world is full of alternative names, some of which are almost ridiculous, such as Parmigiana, Parmabon, Parmezano and Permesansan. In the United States alone, the counterfeit parmesan cheese market is worth over one billion Euros.

Dairies. The dairies in which milk is transformed into Parmigiano-Reggiano every day amount to around 450 and are exclusively located in Italy. They are controlled by a Consortium which safeguards the trademark and guarantees quality.

Earthquake. In 2012, a disastrous earthquake hit the region of Emilia and thousands of Parmesan wheels were destroyed: thanks to the fact that word spread rapidly on the web, the dairies managed to sell the cheese nonetheless, albeit at a lower price, and save one of Italy's most flourishing food industries from bankruptcy.

Forage. Each step in the production of this cheese is strictly controlled: even the forage of the dairy cows has to follow a precise set of rules. The breeding farms, about 4,000 in number, are all in the area of origin, the pastures used are permanent meadows located in the production area and it is strictly prohibited to feed the cows on fermenting and artificial forage crops.

Grana Padano. Italy produces another cheese that is very similar to Parmesan: it is made in the same way but it employs a different type of dairy cow, fed on different forage. Its name – Grana Padano - recalls the Padana plain, the area through which the river Po flows and where grana padano is actually produced. Connoisseurs claim however that, of the two, Parmesan is the superior cheese.

Healthy. 70% of Parmesan is made up of nutrients: rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals, it is the perfect food for children and those who practise sports. Some even say that it has the power to.... increase sexual desire.

Ingredients. Three ingredients and no more: the full fat milk of cows from the area of production, which is then skimmed and, after a few hours, salt and rennet. It is strictly forbidden by production regulations to use any type of additive.

Jim of Treasure. Island Parmesan has also inspired writers of times gone by: did you know that it was even mentioned by Jim, the main character of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island? Jim recounts that he keeps a small piece of it in his tobacco pouch as though it were a precious keepsake.

King of cheese. Its name is renowned the world over: this Italian product is certainly the king of cheeses, owing to its delicious taste, its nutritional value and simplicity.

Long maturation. Parmesan has to age at least 12 months before it can be consumed: its long maturation takes place in silent, fresh and dimly lit chambers in which the wheels are placed on wood boards until they form their typical yellowish rind.

Molière. It is narrated that the famous French playwright loved Parmesan, so much so that he asked for a small piece to be served to him on his deathbed.

Napoleon. Another historical character who appreciated Parmesan was Napoleon Bonaparte: the emperor liked to eat it with green beans.

Origin (place of). The places in which Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced are all within the boundaries of the Italian region of Emilia Romagna, between the cities of Parma and Reggio Emilia (from which it takes its name), Modena, as well as Bologna and Mantua to a lesser extent (on the right bank of the river Po).

Pasta. There are thousands of different recipes featuring Parmesan, from nibbles to enjoy with an aperitif to desserts but, in Italy, its main function is that of adding flavour to pasta, so much so that there is a traditional saying: "like cheese on maccheroni" which is used to indicate anything that is perfectly combined or well timed.

Quantity. 600 litres of milk are needed to produce a wheel of Parmesan cheese. Each wheel (so called because of its shape) weighs between 20 and 40 kilograms.

Rennet. Rennet is one of the ingredients of Parmesan cheese: needless to say, the rennet used for Parmesan also has to comply with strict standards. This enzyme, extracted from the stomach of calves to produce Parmesan, may only be of animal origin, never vegetable or artificial.

Seal. Three different seals are applied to each wheel of Parmesan to indicate how many months the cheese has matured. Taste and consistency will vary according to the level of maturation. The three seals indicate a maturation of 18, 22 or 30 months (so-called stravecchio or extra mature).

Texture. The texture of this cheese is truly unique: it is granular and compact yet ready to break up into flakes which become mini portions at the mere touch of a knife. This hard cheese breaks down easily in the mouth and requires very little chewing. For this reason, it is a popular food with small children.

Umami. Among the few foods naturally rich in umami, the fifth taste, Parmesan cheese always deserves a mention: in fact it has that special taste our sense buds are able to distinguish apart from sweetness, saltiness, bitterness and sourness.

Vegan. Not exactly a cheese for vegans, but other versions are made using milk extracted from various seeds to satisfy the palates of those who have excluded animal products from their diet. They are not, however, recognized by the regulatory body and so they are not entitled to use the name of "parmigiano".

Web war. In the summer of 2015, a strange web dispute broke out, involving Parmigiano-Reggiano against the busy website of porn videos, PornHub: in one of its commercials, the portal described itself as being "like Parmesan among other cheeses", in other words, the leader of its industry. But the Consortium safeguarding the trademark did not like the comparison and had the bizarre ad removed.

XII Century. The history of Parmesan dates back almost 900 years: in the Middle Ages, the manual production of this cheese was widespread among Benedictine and Cistercian monks in the areas of Parma and Reggio Emilia. The tradition has been handed down through the centuries, intact.

Year of production. The identity card of each wheel of parmigiano reggiano is written on its rind. It is here, in fact, that you can read its name, in letters traced in dotted lines and repeated all over the surface of the cheese. It is also mandatory for each wheel to indicate the month and year of its production. Furthermore a casein plaque is pressed onto the rind bearing a code which identifies each individual wheel.

Zen. The quality control of each wheel of Parmigiano, month after month, is a job of almost zen-like patience, carried out by a group of experts who observe the wheels individually. After a year's maturation, each wheel is in fact analyzed, handled and, thanks to various techniques, it is decided whether it is entitled to go on maturing and become a wheel suitable for consumption. There are experts who are able to recognize the perfect wheel of Parmesan by just tapping it lightly on the hardened rind.

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