A rare type of parmesan from Bianca e Mora
Parmigiano reggiano is not, contrary to common misconception, just a pretentious way of saying ‘parmesan’; nor is the appellation ‘parmesan’ simply laziness on the part of the English. In the 1500s, Italian noblemen used the word ‘parmessano’ to describe cheese made in Parma.
Word soon spread to France, where it was shortened to ‘parmesan’ and eventually filtered through to the rest of Europe. It was only in 1954, when the cheesemakers of Parma and Reggio Emilia banded together to protect its production, that the cheese was officially entitled parmigiano reggiano.
Nowadays, parmesan is the generic term used for all manner of replicas—some that have never even seen the shores of Italy. Parmigiano reggiano, however, has PDO (protected designation of origin) status, meaning it can only be produced in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy and must adhere to particular standards and methods of production.
The parmigiano reggiano found at Bianca e Mora comes in three varieties: organic, brown cow and vacche rosse reggiane or ‘red cow’ parmigiano reggiano.
The vacche rosse breed
“Most parmigiano reggiano is made with fresian cow’s milk,” explains stallholder Ewa, while fondly stroking the giant wheel of cheese that sits before us. But the red cow variety is made from the milk of the vacche rosse breed, so named for the colour of its hide.
“Red cow milk is fattier and makes a cheese that’s harder and less creamy. It’s yellower in colour and more intense.” Red cows are difficult to manage—“it’s not a friendly cow!”—and produce a third less milk than fresians—“we produce only two wheels of cheese a day.” But Ewa insists the milk is better quality.
“It has a protein in it that makes it exceptionally good for making cheese, and has more aptitude for ageing. When we started selling red cow parmigiano reggiano four years ago, people thought we were crazy,” says Ewa. “Now we have customers who specifically come to us for it. And it’s my favourite, too.”
Red cow parmigiano reggiano is made—and can be used—in exactly the same way as the other varieties. “But because it’s higher quality, it’s nice to eat it in chunks with a drop of balsamic vinegar and maybe a glass of red wine,” Ewa suggests. “Parmigiano reggiano isn't just for pasta!”
Ready to eat
Every bit of this special cheese can and deserves to be used, including the rind. “Never put it in the bin,” she implores, “just put the rind in the oven for 15 minutes and it is ready to eat. Or, in the winter, put the rind in a saucepan with minestrone for the last 20 minutes of cooking time. The amazing taste of the cheese will infuse in the minestrone. Just be careful with the salt!”
The cheese is made up of a combination of fermented and fresh milk, which is heated in a copper cauldron that’s expertly monitored. It is then placed in round, wooden moulds to give its final shape, and each wheel is embossed with a registration number, its month and year of production, the PDO mark and a dotted inscription of the name parmigiano reggiano on the crust.
Each wheel is then soaked in saline water—“the only added preservative”—matured naturally in a farmhouse on big wooden tables, then inspected by the Red Cow Consortium. It is then matured in a carefully controlled storehouse for a minimum of 24 months, after which it’s inspected a final time before being stamped with the “coveted mark of the red cows”.
The longer the maturation period, the harder, crumblier and more peppery the cheese. “We sometimes have 36 month-aged red cow parmigiano reggiano, and I’ve tried some that’s seven years old! But it was too much in my opinion—24 months is perfect.”