Thursday, March 24, 2016

What is so good about Parmigiano-Reggiano? It’s so scrumptious that a new word has to be invented

I'm hooked by the golden grainy goodness
of Parmigiano-Reggiano
Parmigiano-Reggiano has long been cherished by chefs and gourmets because of the way it improves so many dishes. It is the best cheese in the world, according to no less an authority than my own taste buds, which, to me, are the most important experts. After my recent visit to a cheese factory, I decided to do some research on the health benefits of the cheese, which are numerous, but I also chanced upon fascinating information about its taste. Food scientists have isolated and officially recognized a fifth taste (the first four are widely known: sweet, sour, bitter and salt) and given it the name umani,” a word borrowed from Japanese, since it was a Japanese chemist who first wrote about it in 1908.

Umani has been variously translated as “savory,” “meaty,” “good flavor,” “yummy” or “scrumptiousness.” However it’s described, it turns out that Parmigiano-Reggiano contains more umani elements than almost another other cheese—or any other food, for that matter. Wikipedia says that Japanese scientists described the flavor as “a mild but lasting aftertaste that is difficult to describe. It induces salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, stimulating the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth.”
Cheese being tested with a special tool.

Food scientists have also noted that the optimum umani taste depends on the amount of salt, an ingredient that is infused in Parmigiano-Reggiano, apparently in just the right amount. Taste tests have found that low-salt foods can maintain a satisfactory taste with the appropriate amount of umani flavor: Ratings on pleasantness, taste intensity and ideal saltiness of low-salt soups were greater when the soup contained umani, whereas low-salt soups without umani were less pleasant. Other tests have shown that elderly people may benefit from umani taste because their taste and smell sensitivity is impaired by age and medicine.

Returning to the health benefits, Parmigiano-Reggiano is considered so nutritious that it is the cheese of choice in space, selected for both U.S. and Russian astronauts. Skiers, mountain climbers and cyclists often carry the cheese when training because it keeps well and is packed with protein and nutrients. When compared to other cheeses, it is lower in fat and sodium and higher in vitamins and minerals. It contains nineteen of twenty-one amino acids the body needs, and a 1-ounce serving provides as much as 30 percent of a person's RDA for calcium. A 2-ounce serving of Parmigiano-Reggiano contains about 20.3 grams of protein, which is 41 percent of the daily value set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Doctors prescribe the cheese for the elderly and infants because it is easily digested and lactose-free. Athletic trainers and sport dietitians recommend it for athletes because it is nutritious even in small amounts and is easily digested.

It is also produced naturally and comes from cows whose diets are also natural and strictly controlled. Made from only milk, natural calf rennet and salt, it contains absolutely no additives, and the milk used to make it is ultra-fresh: It contains no antibiotics, no steroids and no growth hormones. What the cows eat is well documented; it is a diet consisting primarily of vegetation grown in the carefully delineated Parmigiano-Reggiano region, with no silage.

“The micro-climate is a factor of great importance for animal welfare, as it can deeply affect not only the productive and reproductive performance of cattle, but, also and above all, the quality of the milk produced,” said animal expert Emanuel Bonetto, writing in an Italian technical magazine. This is one of the main reasons that Parmigiano-Reggiano can’t be duplicated anywhere else. If one took cows from Emilia-Romagna to another country and tried to feed them the same diet, it wouldn’t work, because of differences in the quality and balance of the vegetation, the temperature of the air, the chemical composition of the water and a variety of other subtle but important factors. And one would also have to try to simulate the temperatures and humidity of the region during the long process of fermentation, which can take anywhere from twelve to seventy months.

The region’s cheese consortium website explains why it is important to prohibit silage: “In the 60s and 70s, highly-productive agricultural methods were being established, and the maize silage technique certainly met these needs of high productions at lower costs. However, this also caused qualitative problems in the production of long maturation cheese. The anaerobic environment of silage develops a kind of bacteria, butyric clostridia, that reproduce via spores, i.e. tiny capsules where bacteria are quiescent. These spores are highly resistant and can easily survive at cheese making temperatures. They end up in the milk through environmental contamination and hence in the cheese. When certain conditions occur, spores open and release bacteria that start to grow and develop gas with the resulting presence of cracks and holes in the cheese paste. These bacteria can be kept under control by means of certain additives, which may be harmless or natural, like lysozyme, but which in any case are used to correct a lack of quality of the milk.

Tullio Ferrari
“Parmigiano-Reggiano has adopted a radically different strategy, that of preventing the occurrence of problems. It was decided to ban the use of silage to keep the level of clostridia spores minimal in milk. Therefore, in Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, naturalness means using a milk that has its own microbiological balance. It means that its microbiological base consists of the lactic bacteria that are naturally present in milk, that are typical of the area of origin and the development of which must be favored by the dairy process. These are the reasons why Parmigiano-Reggiano is a true combination of nature and knowledge.”

Or, as the head of the Caseficio Il Battistero, Tullio Ferrari, told me: “It is not manufactured; it is made. It’s a miracle of nature.”

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