How do You describe a cheese that exists since the middle age? Using the word “manufacturing” feels inappropriate for this cheese considering it is still done in the same way as 800 years ago. No modern technical progresses through the centuries have been able to better this ancient method, the inherited know-how and the ability of the dairy factories that have been handed down through generations. The grounding is the genuine and essential ingredients, the fundamental milk from this special region, the fire and the rennet.
The storage goes on for two or more years, it is very important and requires much manual work. You need to wash and turn the whole, guard it, control and supervise the cheese day after day. The perfect ageing is totally dependent on nature own rhythm. This entails both risks and worries that the final result might be faulty.
Production is regional and it’s done only in the characteristic area that goes from the districts of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Mantova to the east of river Po and from Bologna to the west of river Reno. In the dairy factories, where all the work is concentrated, everything is planned to the smallest detail to make the work conditions, all processes and the hygiene perfect. The milk that comes from the neighbouring producers, with its special merits, is collected there. Cows, naturally inclined to a wide milk production, are grown with special care.
Very strict rules are applied to the forage (silage food is prohibited). It’s used only the milk from two special milking: the evening milking is kept all night in small holders, the morning milk kept for about one hour. Milk from the evening is partly skimmed and the cream is removed (which explains why Parmigiano Reggiano is NOT a fat cheese). Milk from the evening and from the morning are finally mixed in a special copper holder. At this point a whey graft or whey ferment is added: it’s a natural culture of flora produced from the whey of the previous processing. This is a very old custom that increases milk acidity and as a matter of facts brings the milk to a proper fermentation.
Then the copper holder is brought up to 33°C under careful shaking: when the heating is completed, rennet (coming from cows interiors) is added and after 12-15 minutes the coagulation is ready. What’s left after the coagulation is the most nutrient part of the milk (cagliata). The liquid left is named siero
The cagliata is stirred and separated with a sharp tool called “spino”. The “spinatura” (use of the spino) parts the condensed bulk to small bites, smaller than a corn grain, ready to be cooked. The temperature is raised slowly up to 45°C and quickly up to 55°C. When the heat is finally off the corns gather in the bottom of the holder and build up again a bulk that, after about 30 minutes, is placed in a hessian cloth. Wrapped in the cloth, the bulk is placed in a mould made of metal or wood called "fascetta" (wrapper). This is where the cheese gets its characteristic shape. Now it’s time for the salting made in a solution of kitchen salt.
Finally the moulds are stored in a store called “cascina". There, they are placed on big wood shelves, cleaned, turned and controlled continuously. From this moment starts the Nature long process of ageing. Generally all cheeses have a special mould: Parmigiano Reggiano is without doubt very original, big and impressive with a weight between 33 and 40 Kg.
The whole cheese
How is it then possible that every mould looks exactly the same as 800 years ago? Some details of the shape have a natural explanation as for the rind (scalzo). This is the consequence of the weight of the mould during the first period of ageing. Similarly the sides of the cheese are flat because it lies on wooden shelves. Also other cheeses have characteristic shapes. Provolone and Caciocavallo are shaped as a pear since they age hanging on a cord that causes a thicker lower part. Pecorino on the other hand is generally small, not just because it could ease up the transportation in the past but also because its typical ageing requires small sizes. The special mould of Parmigiano Reggiano is the most ideal to help a slow ageing and give uniformity to the cheese bulk.