What is parmesan?
Parmesan – or to give it its proper name, Parmigiano Reggiano DOP – is an aged hard cow’s milk cheese. Parmigiano Reggiano is named after the cities of Parma and Reggio Emilia, in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. Although much copied and imitated, true Parmigiano Reggiano is only made out of milk from cows raised in specific areas – namely Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of Mantua and Bologna. The almost 1000-year-old process is strictly protected, giving the cheese its Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) status.
Known as the “King of Cheeses'', Parmigiano Reggiano is prized around the world for its grain-like texture and rich, rounded flavour, both of which become more defined the longer the cheese is aged. Parmigiano Reggiano has to be aged for a minimum of 12 months, but you can also buy 18-month, 24-month, 36-month and 40-month vintages.
How is Parmigiano Reggiano made?
Parmigiano Reggiano has similar origins to its close relative, Grana Padano, another aged cheese first concocted by monks in the Middle Ages as a means of preserving excess milk. In fact, the method they developed has hardly changed since the thirteenth century:
- Cows are milked twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. The evening milk is left overnight to naturally skim, before being combined with the fresh morning milk.
- The milks are then mixed with calf rennet and whey in giant copper vats and heated.
- Next, the cheesemaker (known as a cassaro) uses a tool called a spino – essentially a giant whisk – to break up the curds, before the mix is cooked and left to rest.
- After this, the cheesemaker uses a wooden paddle to bring the soft cheese to the surface, before slicing it in two (meaning that every wheel has an identical twin out there somewhere).
- Each piece is then put into a cylindrical mould and dried for a few days, before being dunked in a saltwater brine.
- After a month under water, the cheese is taken to a cavernous ageing room, where it sits on a shelf next to thousands of other wheels for a minimum of 12 months (and often longer).
- At 12 months, experts inspect the quality of the wheels by tapping them and checking for holes, before branding them with the official Parmigiano Reggiano seal of approval.
What does Parmigiano Reggiano pair with?
As wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano age, their flavour profiles and textures develop. This means that each vintage is suited to a different purpose and pairing:
Cooking with Parmigiano Reggiano
We’re sure you’ve grated Parmigiano Reggiano over a dish of pasta before, but it’s also brilliant when shaved into salads, incorporated into a sauce or used to fill pasta. Here’s three of our favourite Parmigiano Reggiano recipes:
Tortellini in brodo: The signature dish of Emilia-Romagna’s capital city, Bologna. These belly-button shaped pasta parcels are filled with a heady mix of Parmigiano Reggiano, ground pork and prosciutto, before being served swimming in bubbling broth.
Pesto alla Genovese: Hailing from Liguria, this classic pesto uses pine nuts, handfuls of freshly-torn basil leaves, cloves of garlic, and, of course, bountiful helpings of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Our pork polpette: Based on Chef Roberta’s family recipe, these pork meatballs are bound with a mixture of Parmigiano Reggiano and pecorino cheese for a satisfyingly savoury secondo.
Is Parmigiano Reggiano vegetarian?
Because animal rennet is used in the strictly protected production process, true Parmigiano Reggiano isn’t suitable for vegetarians. Vegetarian versions made without animal rennet are widely available, but these can’t be called Parmigiano Reggiano. Instead, this product is normally sold as ‘Italian hard cheese’.
The time-honoured process does have other benefits. Despite being made from milk, the way that Parmigiano Reggiano is produced and aged means that it's naturally lactose-free.
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