This post is produced in partnership with the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese Consorzio. I needed little persuasion. Parmesan is one of my absolute favourite ingredients and I have visited many Parmesan dairies over several trips to Emilia Romagna.
Emilia Romagna is a favourite place to visit. I go most years, to Bologna, to Modena, to Parma. I still have places to visit like Ferrara, and I will continue to return. I adore the food, and the people.
Emilia Romagna is known as the belly of Italy and for good reason. The people of Emilia Romagna have a joie de vivre when it comes to life, and especially when it comes to eating. It is home to tagliatelle al ragu, passatelli, tortellini al brodo and lots of other hearty foods. Some of my favourite wines are made here too, the underrated lambrusco, a sparkling red wine served chilled, and perfect for the foods of the region. It is also home to the Italian food products that we are most familiar with. Salumi comes from here (there is even a salumi museum) and Emilia Romagna is the home of Parma ham, balsamic vinegar of Modena and parmigiano reggiano (aka Parmesan).
Parmesan – the King of Cheeses – still produced today as it was nine centuries ago
Parmesan is known as the King of Cheeses. It is one of the world’s oldest and richest cheeses and it is still produced today as it was nine centuries ago. Making Parmesan is highly regulated and controlled by P.D.O. (protected designation of origin), a strict process managed and inspected by the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese Consorzio. P.D.O. products are defined and protected by European Union law in order to defend the reputation of regional foods. This mark ensures that Parmigiano Reggiano can only be produced in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the west of the Reno River and Mantua to the east of the Po River.
The cheese is rigorously inspected throughout the ageing process. Each wheel is identified by a special consorzio seal which confirms that it is authentically Parmesan, the dairy which it came from and the month and the year in which it is made. It is an extraordinary experience to stand in the middle of the tall shelves of ageing Parmesan wheels ageing gently, the smell is incredible. It is an experience that every food lover should have at some point in their life.
How Parmesan is made
Emilia Romagna is dotted with Parmesan dairies. There is something magical about watching the process which has barely changed with time. Each cheese is made with such care and precision, and with speed as Parmesan is a raw milk cheese. After shaping and moulding, each cheese is brined and then aged for a minimum of 12 months (it is at its best at at least 24 months). The long ageing period is fundamental in building the flavour and texture of Parmigiano Reggiano. The complexity of Parmesan is achieved in a totally natural way, without any additives. Parmigiano Reggiano is a 100% natural, easy to digest cheese which is high in calcium.
The cheese is aged beyond this also during which time the cheese develops its flavour, texture and digestibility. I highly recommend seeking out the older cheeses also and an excellent tip for anyone who is lactose intolerant is that 36 month old Parmesan is lactose free. You should also try the Parmigiano Reggiano PDO Vacche Rosse, the Parmesan made from the milk of the original red cow of the region. At 24 months old red cow Parmesan is lactose free.
Parmesan is rich in umami, making it a perfect snacking cheese
Parmesan is sublime on its own, rich as it is in glutamates which develop as the cheese ages, and which confer on it a deep umami flavour. Umami being that savoury character that you get from Parmesan but also soy sauce, anchovies etc. You know that deep deep gorgeousness that makes you pause and reflect. And then immediately dive in for more. Reflection is all well and good but it is brief in the place of great cheese. Umami is what more-ish is. 24 month old Parmesan has umami in spades, but seek out the older Parmesans which have am even deeper flavour and develop crystalline nuggets within, small calcium lactate crystals which add to the cheese flavour and texture. I bought an incredible 5 year old Parmesan on my last visit.
Parmesan as an ingredient
Parmesan makes a terrific ingredient. Aubergine parmigiana is a death row dish, the combination of aubergine, tomato and Parmesan being nothing short of whimper inducing. I love to make an indulgent Parmesan fondue with ceps and white wine, Parmesan custard with cream, milk and eggs, black pepper and a little chilli and a bechamel enriched with Parmesan will be one of the best bechamels you will ever taste.
Here, with Christmas in mind, I made a parmesan cream which I baked in gorgeous pumpkins. The cream is a decadent soup made from good chicken stock, cream and Parmesan which is poured into a pumpkin which is pre-baked until almost done, then the lot is finished in the oven. Crisp fried sage finish, along with a sprinkle of paprika or chilli to finish (that I will leave to personal taste as I know not everyone is a chilli head).
How do you like your Parmesan?! Do share your recipes.
More Parmesan recipes you should try
And if you visit Bologna
- 2 small pumpkins or squashes (minimum 6 inches wide) - select flat ones if you can
- 2 tbsp neutral oil
- - this yields enough for two pumpkins but you may want to double it to have seconds, I would! -
- 2 cloves garlic, bashed but kept whole
- 1 bay leaf
- 250ml chicken stock (vegetable or beef stock would work too, but I prefer chicken)
- 250ml single cream
- 125g Parmesan, finely grated
- sprig of fresh thyme (leave whole)
- 3 egg yolks
- white pepper
- sea salt
- sage leaves fried gently in oil until crisp
- chilli flakes or paprika
- grated Parmesan (1 tbsp per person / serving)
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