Italian Days – Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP

If you planning a trip to Italy you must stop in Bologna for this tour.

It is called Italian Days. Quite simply it rocks! This food tour was created and hosted by an enthusiastic food-loving DOP-championing Italian named Alessandro. Researching our trip I knew the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy was one of the regions I wanted to visit. Included within Emilia-Romagna are the provinces of Parma, Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Bologna to name a few. This region is known around the world for prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, fast Italian cars, and most famously the king of all cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano.  I learned of Italian Days though research on the web about food tours in Emilia-Romagna. As soon as I saw this tour, I knew it needed to be done. A whole day with some of Italy’s most famous food creations all in one place.

We arrived in Bologna from Venezia by train the night before our tour. This gave us an evening to enjoy the sites and fare of Bologna, but that is another story all to itself.

Early morning on a Tuesday, Alessandro and crew picked us up from our hotel at 7:30am. We were leaving for Florence that night after the tour so we had arranged to be dropped off at the train station after the day’s tour.

The moment we met Alessandro we knew we were in for an unforgettable experience. As soon as we got in the van he didn’t pause for a second before he started telling us about our exciting day ahead. First, was Parmigiano-Reggiano, then Aceto Balsamico di Modena, a “light lunch, and finally Prosciutto de Modena to end the day.

The first leg of the tour, Parmigiano Reggiano.

The king of cheeses. Made right in front of my eyes.

After a drive through the Modena countryside we arrived at Val Tiepido.

We found the milk which was delivered fresh in the early hours of the morning already poured from these tables into the bell-shaped copper kettles.

The copper kettles go 1 meter into the floor and are fit to be heated with steam. Fermented whey and rennet are added to the milk. The mixture then sits for 10 minutes to form the curd.

The curd is then broken up into tiny pieces using a “spino” tool. You can see the spino in the picture below in the background along with the paddle which will be used to pull the cheese out of the kettle.

The Casaro heats the curd. As the foreman of the operation or Casaro “cheese maker” this man has a very important job to ensure the temperature is correct to form the correct curd.

It takes 16 liters (4.2 gallons) of milk to produce 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cheese.

The curd then rests for 30 minutes.

As it rests the curd collects at the bottom of the kettle.

The Casaro uses a long wooden paddle to release the mass of curd to float to the surface.

Each kettle holds a mass of curd which will create two wheels of cheese. Each wheel will weigh around 39 kilos (86 pounds) when completed.

He then prepares to catch the mass with cheese cloth attached to two wooden dowels.

Once the cheese is removed from the kettle it is put into a casein mold which is marked with the pin-dot PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO, a unique progressive number, the production month, the production year, and the production dairy number. This dairy happened to be number 2552.

Once the mass of curd is captured in the cheese cloth, only the Casaro is allowed to cut it to create two equal sections. Each section is then put into one wheel creating two wheels of cheese. Alessandro told us this Casaro had been with the dairy for several decades. His job is so crucial to the process he has only taken off about a month of time in all of the years he has worked for the dairy.

Once cut, other workers pull the curd out of the kettles with the cheese cloth and place it in the molds.

Once in the molds, weight is put on top of each mold to compress the curd and release any excess water. The casein wrap will imprint the wheel, but this diary has also added a QR (Quick Response) Code for traceability and quality. A QR Code reader can be found or downloaded on any smart phone. The QR code will instantly find all information specific to this cheese. Not only will the code carry information about the cheese production including date and dairy, but it will also carry information about in which kettle it was created, vat it was salted, and even which farmer’s cows produced the milk. So crazy. So cool!

After a few days the wheels are removed from the mold. It is then put in one of 12 vats to be salted. Each wheel is brined in the salt for 30 days before moving to the maturation room.

The wheels are turned periodically to ensure even salt penetration.

Once the wheels are salted they are moved to the silent maturation room. The wheels are then aged for at least 12 months in which it forms a natural crust. The natural crust makes the entire wheel edible. The cheese is cleaned and rotated on a regular basis.

After 12 months the cheese is then reviewed by the Consortium. The wheel of cheese is not Parmigiano-Reggiano until it is evaluated by this governing body. In order to become Parmigiano-Reggiano the Consortium must designate the cheese as meeting the requirements. It’s then fire-branded with the Designation of Origin Protected or Denominazione D’Origine Protetta (DOP). (Since our tour I have seen products listed as Protected Designation of Origin (POD). I am not sure if this designation was updated or if they are used hand-in-hand but I will stick with DOP). Italians are very proud of their products, the authenticity, their Consortium, and of course the DOP designation. Any product certified as DOP means it is the real deal. If you want the real thing with your Parmigiano-Reggiano or your Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Balsamic Vinegar) you must look for the DOP. Otherwise it is just a copy. If you must buy, just ensure don’t pay too much for it.

The Consortium qualifies cheese on three levels. Only two of the levels are considered Parmigiano-Reggiano, the third is just considered table cheese. The table cheese is the lower quality product. Each wheel is inspected for sound, resistance, smell, and sampling if needed based on the standards of the Consortium. If  the cheese is determined not to meet standards it is sold as fresh (aged 12 months) table cheese for immediate consumption. If it has achieved higher quality standards it is determined to be second class or even higher quality first class. The second and first class cheese are fire-branded by the Consortium. Once branded, the wheel of cheese can be called Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Literally tons of cheese behind us.

What goes with our first taste of their cheese? Lambrusco, of course!

You can purchase the cheese right from the dairy.

Luckily we can bring Parmigiano-Reggiano home if it is vacuum sealed. We bought 3 kilos (6.6 pounds) to bring home. We paid about $25 Euro ($35 US). When I got home Hy-Vee sells it for $15.99 a pound! The seal tells you what type of cheese you are buying. Red Seal – Aged 18 months, Silver Seal – Aged 22 months, and Gold Seal – Aged Over 30 months. We purchased a few of each.

Parmigiano-Reggiano Tidbits: The white crunchy bits you encounter in Parmigiano-Reggiano are concentrated Amino Acids. Only 27% of all the Parmigiano-Reggiano produced is exported outside of Italy.

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