Today, like nine centuries ago.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the oldest and richest cheeses in the world. This cheese is essentially produced like nine centuries ago: using the same ingredients (raw milk, rennet and salt), with the same craftsmanship and production technique that has undergone very few changes over the centuries, thanks to the decision to keep a fully natural production, without the use of additives. Its production is governed by strict Specifications, registered with the European Union, because Parmigiano-Reggiano is a cheese with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), i.e. a product that, based on its distinctive characteristics and its tie to the area of origin, is safeguarded by a system provided by the EU to protect consumers and producers alike. To bear the designation “Parmigiano Reggiano PDO”, the cheese has to be made respecting some rules. First of all, it has to be produced in the Area of origin (which includes the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua to the right of the Por river, and Bologna to the left of the Reno River – a surface area of approximately 10,000 km2). The production of cow’s milk, the processing into cheese, the maturation until a minimum age of 12 months, the packaging and the grating of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO has to take place exclusively in the area of origin. Therefore, it is not possible to make Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese with milk produced outside this area or coming from abroad. Furthermore, Parmigiano Reggiano has to be made using artisan and natural methods that are established in the Product Regulation and in the strict Specifications, which set forth specific production procedures (Production Standard), a special diet for cows (Feeding Regulation for Dairy Cattle), rules for using the hot-iron mark (Marking Regulation).
What strongly binds Parmigiano Reggiano to its area of origin and makes it so that in no other place in the world can the same product be manufactured, even if the same production techniques were used, are the aspects associated to culture and tradition. It is first and foremost a microbiological characteristic that binds Parmigiano Reggiano to its area of origin. Only raw milk produced in the area of origin is indeed used to produce Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. It is a special milk, characterised by a unique and intense bacterial activity of the local microbial flora, influenced by environmental factors, especially by the forage, grass and hay from the area that account for the main feed of the cows dedicated to this specific production. Furthermore, no additives are used to make Parmigiano Reggiano. This means that during the production process there are no external actions (for example no addition of enzymatic additives or bacteria selected in laboratory) to change the activity of the bacteria that are naturally found in the raw milk produced by the farms in the area of origin. Only the cheese master during processing, thanks to the cheese making technique, can enhance and favour the lactic bacteria that operate the positive lactic fermentations that are expected for the success of the cheese making process.
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Parmigiano Reggiano has always been an expression of its land of origin and of Italy worldwide until its very origins, which are old and noble and date back to the Middle Ages. In particular, monks were the first producers of Parmigiano Reggiano, driven by the quest for a cheese featuring one main characteristic: that of lasting for a long time. They achieved this result by letting the cheese mass dry and increasing the wheel size, thus enabling the cheese to keep long and thus to travel, including far away from the production area. This feature has been Parmigiano-Reggiano’s fortune, resulting in it travelling around the world for centuries to become an authentic expression of what we call today the Made in Italy agribusiness. The first written evidence dates back to 1254 in a notarial deed found in the State Archives of Genoa where a the caseus parmensis, i.e. the cheese from Parma, is mentioned. The best known literary evidence dates back to 1344: Giovanni Boccaccio in the Decameron described the district of Bengodi and mentioned a mountain of “grated Parmesan” on which “Macaroni and ravioli” were rolled, which is a clear indication of the product’s use in the kitchen.
Its properties are numerous and all linked to the intrinsic product characteristics: high digestibility, high calcium content present in a particularly bioavailable form, absence of additives and preservatives, richness in minerals, organoleptic pleasantness and liking. Due to these characteristics, Parmigiano Reggiano is a fundamental food in the daily diet of everyone, from children to elderly people, including athletes who find in Parmigiano Reggiano a fully natural energy charge. Thanks to its production process, the King of Cheeses is also naturally lactose free already 48 hours from production since all its sugar (lactose) is transformed into lactic acid by lactic bacteria.
The cattle producing milk intended for the production of Parmigiano Reggiano follows a specific diet. The Specifications indeed set out that forage should be mostly procured locally. In particular, the Specifications establish that at least 50% of the forage used by the cattle should be grown by the dairy farm, and at least 75% should be grown within the production area. As a matter of fact, the production fabric is almost totally made up of family run farms that are deeply rooted in the area, so almost all the forage comes from the farm and the production area. The Specifications also provide that the cattle diet be based exclusively on vegetable feeds containing cereals such as barley, wheat, corn (purchased from feed manufacturers that are registered with the Feed Manufacturer List set up by the Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Consortium). To define the composition of the feeds, the Specifications are particularly strict since many low quality raw materials, as well as by-products of the food industry such as fish and meat flours are absolutely forbidden.
The Biodiversity: The differences that make it unique.
This is the most common breed among Parmigiano Reggiano producers. Imported from Holland, it is known as Friesian because the original stock is found in the Dutch region of Friesland. The first cattle were brought to Italy at the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, cattle from Italian breeding farms were introduced and the breed, now acclimated, became known for to its high productivity thus becoming the most widespread milk-producing breed in Italy and in the Parmigiano Reggiano area of origin.
The introduction of the brown breed in the Parma area dates back to the mid-18th century, even though 16th and 17th century documents already mention cattle with a brown coat. These were probably of Swiss origin and brought over from Lombardy. These cows proved valuable because they were rural and meek, suited to work in the fields. Over the years, the brown breed became known for its production of milk, whose rheological characteristics make it highly suitable for cheese-making thanks to its high casein and fat content.
Until just after the Second World War, there were cows with a reddish coat in the traditional barns of courtyard farms. These served a triple purpose. The breed dates back to the year 1000, probably in Pannonia, today’s Hungary. Its milk is rich in protein – in particular casein – calcium, and phosphorous, and it has optimal cheese making characteristics: the right amount of cream rises to the surface, the milk clots quickly, the curd is firm and elastic and the dairy yield is high. The Reggiana Breed Association has established that 24 months is the minimum maturation time for this cheese.
The minimum maturation is 12 months (the longest minimum maturation for any PDO cheese), but Parmigiano Reggiano reaches a degree of maturation that fully expresses its typical characteristics at approximately 24 months. It can mature for up to 36, 48 months or longer, acquiring unexpected and unparalleled flavours and aromas. In maturation, thanks to the action of the enzymes released by lactic bacteria, proteins are broken down into smaller pieces, free peptides and amino acids – the basic bricks of the protein chain. This action of protein breakdown (proteolysis) determines the structure and sensory properties of Parmigiano Reggiano and its high digestibility.
12 -19 months
It has a balanced taste and delicate flavour with hints of milk, yoghurt and fresh fruit. It is particularly suitable for aperitifs paired with sparkling white wines, or to enrich salads and cold dishes.
20 -26 months
It is soluble, crumbly and grainy with the right balance between mildness and tastiness, with notes of fresh fruit, nuts and meat stock. Perfect with medium body wines and to add flavour to all the dishes of the Italian tradition.
27 -34 months
It is particularly crumbly and grainy. The flavour is pronounced with notes of spices, nuts and meat stock. It is an ideal ingredient for filled and baked pastas or to be tasted at the end of meals, paired with fruit and honey.
It has passed the test of time and releases pleasant scents of spices. It is an exclusive gift and a pleasant companion to be tasted with structured and medited wines.
In 2013, the EU Regulation no. 1151/12 introduced the denomination “Mountain Product” to identify food products coming from mountain areas in the European Union.
Parmigiano Reggiano is the most important PDO product made in the mountains, with over 110 dairies located in the mountains and over 1,200 cattle farmers. In order to further support sustainability in mountain areas and to offer guarantees that include, the quality of the cheese, the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium has launched “Quality Project – Mountain Product.” The requirements for obtaining this certification are:
- 100% of milk produced in barns must be located in mountain areas
- Over 60% of the cattle feed must be grown in mountain areas
- There must be a dairy and maturation stage of at least 12 months, in mountain areas
- At 24 months, a “hammer” evaluation must be carried out by Consortium experts
- Sensory evaluation (tasting group) and chemical composition analysis
Parmigiano Reggiano from organic farming entails full product traceability at all production phases and certification according to the legal requirements for organic farming production.
Furthermore, Specifications establish that the use of fermented forage is absolutely forbidden to feed cattle. Therefore, the use of corn silage is forbidden, whilst this is largely used in other parts of Italy. Indeed, this fermented forage leads to the presence of bacteria in milk (clostridia spores that are resistant to heat) that cause harmful fermentations that give rise to defects in the cheese during its lengthy maturation (swelling of the cheese mass caused by undesired development of gas). The only way to prevent this harmful microbial activities is using additives or physical milk centrifugation techniques. But producers have always opposed to the adoption of non-natural practices and thus the use of any additives in the production of Parmigiano Reggiano is absolutely forbidden. These strict regulations for the feeding of cattle are particularly important because it is what cattle eats that leads to a good quality milk that is suitable to make Parmigiano Reggiano. Furthermore, it is forage that determines the positive “bacterial flora” that establishes the link with the land and characterises the milk first and the cheese later. Parmigiano Reggiano is a PDO, i.e. Protected Designation of Origin, product where the word “origin” refers to the area where it is made, which “influences” the product because of this very bacterial activity that is left totally free in Parmigiano Reggiano since there are no additives that can change fermentations and enzymatic activities during its maturation process.
Only three ingredients are used to produce Parmigiano Reggiano: milk, rennet and salt. Milk is used raw, i.e. it does not undergo heat treatments, therefore it features all the richness of lactic ferments naturally present in it. The microbial flora composition is influenced by the environmental factors of the area of origin, especially by hay and the specific feeding of cattle. For the production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, only natural calf rennet is used; rennet is obtained from the stomach of suckling calves (bacterial rennet is forbidden) and natural salt (sodium chloride). The use of every additive and selected bacterial starters is forbidden.
Minimum maturation is 12 months (the longest minimum maturation for any PDO cheese), but Parmigiano-Reggiano reaches a degree of maturation that fully expresses its typical characteristics at approximately 24 months. It can mature up to 36, 48 months or longer, acquiring unexpected and unparalleled flavours and aromas. In maturation, thanks to the action of the enzymes released by lactic bacteria, proteins are broken down into smaller pieces, free peptides and amino acids, the basic bricks of the protein chain. This action of protein breakdown (proteolysis) determines the structure and sensory properties of Parmigiano Reggiano and its high digestibility.
The different degrees of maturation give rise to varying aromatic sensations and make it particularly versatile in the kitchen and suitable for several preparations and pairings:
12 – 18 Months
Parmigiano Reggiano with 12-18 months of maturation has a harmonious and delicate flavour with scents of milk, yoghurt and fresh fruit. It is particularly suitable for aperitifs paired with sparkling white wines, or to enrich salads and cold dishes.
Parmigiano Reggiano with 22-24 months of maturation is soluble, crumbly and grainy with the right balance between mildness and tastiness, with notes of fresh fruit, nuts and meat stock. Perfect with medium body wines and to add flavour to all the dishes of the Italian tradition.
Parmigiano Reggiano with 30-36 months of maturation is particularly crumbly and grainy. The flavour is decided with notes of spices, nuts and meat stock. It is an ideal ingredient for filled and baked pastas or to be tasted at the end of meals, paired with fruit and honey.
More than 40 Months
Parmigiano Reggiano with 40 months has passed the test of time and releases pleasant scents of spices. It is an exclusive gift and a pleasant companion to be tasted with structured and meditation wines.
Control and marks.
The Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium is the protection body that includes all Parmigiano Reggiano producers, who process the milk from the farmers of the area of origin into this PDO cheese complying with the Specifications. It was set up in 1934 and has the purpose of protecting, defending and promoting the product, safeguarding its typicality and disseminating its knowledge worldwide. Every wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano is given a mark of origin (the well known “dots” and starting from 2002 also a “casein plate”). Furthermore, every wheel is quality tested at an age of about 12 months. Only if the wheel passes this test, it is branded with the selection mark (oval mark). The certification of conformity with the Specifications is given by the P-R Quality Control Body on behalf of the European Union and the Ministry.
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