Nutritionists around the world agree that Parmesan cheese (real Parmesan-Reggiano cheese) can play an important role in a healthy diet, due to its nutritional value (high protein content, easy digestibility and high concentrations of calcium and vitamins). Parmesan can rightfully be labeled as a power food, very good for athletes, whether pros or amateurs. It is also beneficial to seniors because of its high content of calcium, phosphorus and one of the lowest cholesterol levels among cheeses.
The roots of this cheese go back to 1200 A.D., in the North-East region of Italy; in an enclosed land that stretches between the Po River and the Apennine Mountain. During the Middle Ages, the Benedictine monasteries in this region, began the production of long-aged cheese of notable size: Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Why so special?
Why is Parmesan so good? And, moreover, why it is produced only in this particular region?
Well, it's pretty intuitive; as with almost any high-quality food; the air, the water and the soil of this particular "spot" are unique and decisive in making Parmesan-Reggiano cheese. On top of that, the level of expertise build over the centuries by the local population involved in the production of Parmesan cheese is rare and hard to replicate.
In this enclosed place cow are 100% grass-fed. This guarantees milk of the highest quality.
In fact, milk's production (used in the manufacturing of Parmigiano-Reggiano) is governed by strict regulations that provide, among other things, for the use of only locally grown grass. More importantly, the cows are never fed with corn silage or fermented food of any kind.
Every day 270,000 cows produce the milk that goes into making Parmesan. They are milked twice a day, and their milk is taken to the cheese factory quickly. There's no use of additives or pasteurization, that's why it has to be delivered asap.
To give you an it takes about 158.5 gallons (600 liters) of milk to make just one wheel of Parmesan cheese.
Here's a quick overview of the manufacturing process...
1) The Milk
Milk, from the evening milking, is partly skimmed through natural separation of the cream made during the night by surfacing at a temperature of 64°F (18°C).
It is then is poured into the copper cauldrons where it is mixed with whole milk from the morning milking.
2) Natural Whey Starter
After warming the milk at 95°F (35°C), natural whey starter is added. A culture of natural lactic ferments obtained from the cheese-making process of the day before.
3) Natural Rennet
Rennet, a natural enzyme from the stomach of suckling calves, that is added. Renner causes the milk to curdle as it causes a the change to pH, which goes from pH 6,7 to pH 4,4.
4) Breaking Up the Curds
The curdled milk is broken down into small granules with a huge balloon whisk called “spino”.
At the temperature of 156 °F (56 °C) the master cheesemaker expel water from the granules. Once the heat is turned off, the granules sink to the bottom of the cauldron, forming a compact mass.
The cheese mass is lifted from the bottom of the cauldron and divided into two parts.
Each part is placed in a special mold called “fascera” where it rests for 2 to 3 days.
8) Application of the Marks of Origin
The mark of origin is then applied to each wheel of cheese. It consists of two things.
The first is a casein disc applied to the top surface containing a unique alphanumeric code used to identify each cheese wheel individually (CFPR).
The second is the mark “Parmigiano-Reggiano” in a repeating pin dot pattern, which also includes the identifying number of the cheese house, and the month and year of production.
The cheese is immersed at 46-64 °F (8-18°C) in brine (a solution of water and natural salt) for about 20 days to allow the absorption of the salt needed to flavor the cheese and allow its long aging.
At the end of the salting process, the cheese wheel is ready to be aged. The aging process lasts for 24 months (sometimes more) during which time the cheese develops its fragrance and texture.
At the end of the minimum period of aging (12 months) each wheel is inspected. An expert evaluates the appearance, structure, and characteristics of the cheese.
Cheese wheels carry different seals according to their aging time: more than 18 months have Red Seal, more than 22 Silver Seal and more than 30 months Gold Seal.
At the end of the aging process the quality of each wheel is examined. If a wheel meets certain standards it can have an additional certification: the mark EXTRA or EXPORT is branded on the side of the wheel to provide an additional guarantee of the superior quality of that particular wheel of Parmesan.
Parmesan is a unique cheese which is often counter-faked.
According to recent figures at 2 out of 3 wheels sold on the market are not real Parmigiano Reggiano. So be careful with what you're buying!