Monday, March 21, 2016

Smells, sounds and flavors of our visit to Parmigiano-Reggiano factory cling to clothes, taste buds and memory

The signature dotted impressions that show authenticity.
As much as I enjoy living in Italy, one would think I must be crazy about the great wines that are so readily and cheaply available. Or maybe I crave the espresso and cappuccino that Italians swear by. Not so. I enjoy an occasional glass of wine with dinner, and I enjoy a coffee when offered. But there is one local specialty that really does make me drool, and that is Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, often called the “king of cheeses.” Every time I grate some over my soup or pasta, I nip little bits of it straight off the block. Even one little shaving makes my taste buds sing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. And then one day, it dawned on me that we live only two hours from Emilia Romagna, where this heavenly formaggio is made. Why not go and see this miracle of nature up close and personal?

Our friends Steve and Patti Gray were coming to see us, and we always like to plan an outing during their visits, so I checked online for guided tours in English. I found many possibilities, but we decided to settle on a less expensive option and go directly to one of the cheese makers. Why pay for an interpreter when we have our bilingual friends, who are celebrating their thirtieth year in Italy this year? I contacted the Caseificio Sociale Il Battistero, a cheese-making farm located in Varano De’ Melegari in the province of Parma. A tour in Italian, led by the director, would cost only 5 euros per person, so I signed us all up, including new friend Michele Jones, who has come to Italy for a few months to work in the Gray’s church in Padova.
Tullio shows us the large trays where the evening milk separates.

We left Montecarlo at 7 a.m. for a two-hour drive. It is important to view a cheese factory in the morning, because that’s when most of the work is done. Our GPS led us astray once, and we arrived a half hour late, but it didn’t matter. We were greeted by Tullio Ferrari, and we asked if he was the boss, the capo. “No, sono il risponsabile (the person in charge).” We shouldn’t say he is the capo because that’s what the heads of mafia families are called, he explained. Tullio provided us with cups of espresso while we donned sanitary gowns, gloves, hair coverings and face masks to prevent any contamination of the caseificio, the dairy factory.

A modern spino in the hands of a skilled worker.
The first written records of the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese come from the 13th century, when it was called “caseus parmensis,” but in all likelihood, it’s history long precedes that era. Cheese is mentioned in the Old Testament at least five times and is also found in other books of antiquity. In the last 100 years, the Parmigiano-Reggiano process has become much more formalized and controlled. Now, Tullio’s factory is regularly inspected by experts from at least four levels of government, as well as those from a cheese-making consortium. Times, temperatures and sanitary standards must be strictly observed. Inspectors may come at any time. “Here, we are nobody, but we’re never alone,” Tullio joked. He apologized for the factory noise, but he added that “we we can’t stop for even a minute.

Milk in one of the large flat vats.
The real process had started the day before, when the cows were milked and the milk was left to rest in large vats overnight. During this time, the fatty parts, which are later used to make butter, rise to the surface and are skimmed off. When the morning milk arrives (the Caseificios 225 cows are milked twice daily, and each cow has her own milking stall and machine), it is combined with the evening skimmed milk and poured into large copper cauldronscaldaiaeshaped like upside-down bells. We saw six of these cauldrons in use, each with about 1,100 liters of milk, and Tullio explained that the milk had been placed in each caldaia at intervals. That means that the workers have about ten minutes to work with each caldaia before moving on the next, and then starting back at the first caldaia for the next step.

Six large cauldrons are filled each morning,
365 days a year.
With the milk heated to around 33 to 35 degrees Celsius (91-95 F), a “starter” whey—rich in natural enzymes and lactic acid bacteria, and obtained from the previous days processing—is mixed in. This can roughly be compared to adding yeast saved from an earlier batch of bread to new bread dough, because the old has the right bacteria needed to initiate chemical reactions in the new.

Then natural calf rennet is added, which makes the milk begin to curdle after about ten minutes. While the history of cheese-making predates recorded history, anthropologists speculate that cheese was accidentally discovered when people used cow bladders, the source of rennet, to transport milk; the rennet caused the milk to turn to cheese. Once the curd began to form, we watched the workers break it into tiny granules about the size of rice grains using a spino. Now this is a modern-looking tool, but a spino was once made from a tree branch with many small branches protruding from it, Tullio said.

Solid granules of cheese are captured in a muslin cloth.
The curd is then cooked at the temper-ature of 55 degrees Celsius (131 F) and left to settle for about forty-five minutes to an hour. At the end of this process, the granules sink to the bottom of the caldaia and aggregate into a single mass. After about fifty minutes, the mass is extracted with skillful movements into a muslin cloth and cut into two sections. Each section is put into a stainless steel cheese mold, which gives it the characteristic wheel shape.
Fascia marchiante
After a day or two, the cheese is removed from the mold and wrapped with a casein plate—the fascia marchiante—which will stamp each cheese block with a sort of identity card which shows, among other things, the date made, the factory number, from which stalls the milk came and even how long it took to make the cheese. “By our rules, the process can’t take more than two hours,” Tullio said.
Cheese molds with salt brine baths in the background.

Each wheel of cheese is then put into a brine bath to absorb salt for twenty to twenty-five days. After brining, the cheese is transferred to an aging room, where it must remain for at least twelve months and sometimes as long as 70 months, my favorite part of the process. The wheels are positioned in rows upon rows twenty shelves tall in a tranquil but incredibly fragrant storeroom. Each of them weighs about 38 kilograms (84 pounds) and takes about 550 liters of milk to make. They gradually turn from creamy white to straw yellow, and they have more in common with gold than just the color. A full wheel currently sells on Amazon for $1,110, and the longer they cure, the more expensive they are.
Cheese wheels 20 shelves high.

The two things I loved about the aging room: The deep, pungent, mouth-watering odor, and the amazing robotic machine that constantly cruises the room, reaching out and lifting, flipping and rotating each wheel of cheese every seven days while also cleaning the shelves. Tullio said that when he started working in the caseificio at age 14, he had to do this work himself. “I was three times as big then from all the lifting,” he said.

The cheese-flipping  robot at work in the background.
After the experts of the cheese consortium examine each wheel to determine its quality—they weigh it, examine its surface and rap on it with a special hammer and listen to the sound it makes—the wheels that pass the inspection receive a certificate of guarantee and are fire branded to show the meet PDO (protected designation of origin) standards. Cheese aged for eighteen months instead of twelve can receive the higher marks of “extra” or “export.” Cheeses that don’t meet the standards must have all the marks and dotted writing removed by a grinding wheel.

“At times, I am ashamed to call myself Italian,” Tullio said. “But knowing all that goes into the making of this cheese—the high standards, the careful quality checks, the long history, the worldwide fame—I can be proud to be Italian.” In fact, Tullio’s farm won a Gold Medal for the third straight year in the 2015-16 World Cheese Awards contest in Birmingham, England, held last November.

On the way out, we passed Tullio’s son, who was making ricotta, but we didn’t stop to see the process. Tullio said he was “ashamed to say that we make a much bigger profit on ricotta,” which can be manufactured and sold almost immediately. “Within 48 hours, we can turn a profit,” he said. “It actually subsidizes the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which takes years before we can make a sale.” The farm also produces butter, mozzarella, yogurt, caciocavallo and some other types of cheese I have not tried.
Two workers pull out the cheese granules. What remains is whey, but nothing will go to waste here. Some of the whey is
used again the next day. The rest of it is used to make other types of cheeses and even as an ingredient in sports drinks.

I know I said the aging room was my favorite, but perhaps a close second was the tasting room. It is nothing special in itself, except that we could eat all the samples we wanted of various ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I could already smell the odors of the aging room clinging to my clothes when I walked into the tasting room. After handling and tasting the cheese, my hands smelled of cheese for hours afterward, and the taste of the samples lingered on my tongue. Of course, we bought three large pieces of cheese, as well as butter and yogurt, so I will enjoy the memories of this tour for months to come each time I unwrap and cut off another slice.


  1. Great pictures! My mouth is watering just looking at them and reading your descriptions. Well written.


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