Parmigiano Reggiano is a special cheese that is wonderful when grated on pasta or in soup, but perhaps the best way to enjoy it is just have a chunk of it plain. It is firm, buttery, and tangy, complete with those little crystals that give it an ever-so-slight crunch. There is nothing quite like it.
Making the Cheese
Parmigiano Reggiano is made at a small Italian farm, and the process begins with cows. They eat a special diet of grass and hay. All the food they eat is grown in a strictly designated area that supposedly has unique minerals in the soil, which contributes to the flavour of the cheese.
The cows are milked twice daily, morning and afternoon. The afternoon milk is stored in vats, where the cream rises to the top before it is skimmed off and used for butter. The morning milk (unskimmed) is then mixed with the previous afternoon's milk, and the cheese making process begins.
The milk is poured into giant copper vats, where it is heated and stirred. At precisely the right moment (as determined by the head cheese1) some whey from yesterday's cheese making and some special rennet is added for biological purposes. After more heating and stirring, the giant vat is filled with hot, coagulated milk sludge with a texture not dissimilar from the star of the movie The Blob.
A large wire basket-like affair at the end of a stick is then used to cut sludge into little pieces, called curd, and then the whole mess is heated and stirred some more. At the precise time the heat and the stirring is stopped, and the curd settles to the bottom of the vat. The liquid on top (the whey) is sucked off and fed to pigs who, in turn, end up as Proscuitto Ham. The curd is lifted into cheesecloth and hung on a bar placed on top of the vat to drain a bit. It is then split into two pieces and placed in a wooden mould, where it sits for a couple of days. On the inside of these moulds are plastic rings that have the imprint you see on the outside of the finished product.
Once the cheese is dry enough to hold its shape, it's taken out of the mould and put in a vat of salt water, where it floats for about a month. From there, it's put on a shelf in an ageing room for two years. During this time, a cheese inspector tests each cheese to see if it's worthy of being called Parmigiano Reggiano. This is done by tapping each cheese with a little metal hammer. In doing so, the inspector is able to glean all sorts of information from the cheese to further determine its worthiness.
Most people don't know this, but there are three grades of Parmigiano Reggiano. The lowest grade is the stuff that fails the hammer-test after the first year of ageing. This stuff isn't even considered to be Parmigiano Reggiano. The cheese makers 'x' out the markings on the outside of the cheese in this case. The second grade is cheese that fails certain tests after the first year of ageing. This stuff is still called Parmigiano Reggiano, but may have some problems in texture or taste. The highest grade is called 'Parmigiano Reggiano Extra'.