We went to find out more about the famous Parmesan cheese or officially Parmigiano-Reggiano on the organic farm of Hombre just outside of Modena. It has to be the all time favourite of cheeses in Italy, sprinkled on innumerable dishes, an essential to Italian cuisine.
Unfortunately outside of Italy many cheeses are mislabelled as ‘Parmesan’ but are far from the real thing, and even within Italy the Gran Padano cheese, a cheaper alternative is often confused as a ‘Parmesan’.
An early morning tour led us past the cattle sheds where contented looking cows gazed at us curiously, while chewing the cud and farm cats sprawled across the pavement or rubbed up against visitors legs for attention. We had come to one of the few organic producers of Parmesan, thanks to the foresight of Umberto Panini, a local entrepreneur and auto enthusiast.
Our guide, Veronica, beamed enthusiasm as she talked of the 300 hectares of fields producing crops for their 250 cows and a number of sweet calves raised their heads on hearing her familiar voice.
We would see the production process from behind glass in an upstairs gallery while listening to an explanation of the process. The evenings milk already skimmed was combined with the morning milk and poured into the copper lined pots, 14 of which lined the floor in front of the cheese moulds and brine vats where the cheese wheels would be immersed later.
500 Litres of milk goes into each cheese and Hombre produces 14 cheese wheels a day plus ricotta. The husband and wife team of cheese makers are seen here extracting the cheese mass from the base of the vast pot. A natural rennet had been used for the curdling process and the pots heated to around 50 degrees, and later switched off for an hour to let the enzymes do the rest.
After 3 weeks immersed in the brine of salt and water the cheese is moved to the aging storage where it will spend up to 2 years for the ‘Stagionato’ (seasoned) or over 30 months for the ‘Stravecchio’ (extra old).
Hombre’s storage area can house up to 8000 cheese wheels which are cleaned and turned regularly by a robot as the cheese sweats creating humidity and the last thing you would want is for any bacteria to get into the cheese. The cheese initially weighs 50 kilos, after a year of ageing 35 kilos and in 2-3 years 30 kilos.
Testers come from the Cheese Consortium to ‘tap’ the cheese listening for an homogenous sound before giving it the ‘green stamp’ of approval.
And of course parmesan cannot be produce outside of a designated geographical area which runs between Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna in the region of Emilia Romagna. Hence the cheese is proudly stamped Parmigiano – Reggiano.
So check the labels when you buy to ensure you are getting authentic parmesan, and remember to only grate it on demand.