This post covers one of the highlights of our 2012 trip to Italy. Why don't you join us next January for a week-long trip to Emilia-Romagna, Italy, to forage for porcini, and learn to make preserves, pasta, piadina and more at the hands of local artisans who do it the way it's been done for generation upon generation. Tickets are on sale now!
Emilia-Romagna is politically one province, but culturally and culinarily, it is two. Romagna, where Cesenatico is, is coastal, and therefore most of its popularity comes from the seaside towns where Italians and other Europeans vacation in the hot months. Emilia, occupying a large inland section of the province, is Italy's breadbasket. Home to Bologna, Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena, it is the source of what most of us think of when we think of Italian food: Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, and balsamico.
Early in the morning on our second day, we piled into a coach to head to Parma, some three hours west of Cesenatico. Our first stop was a caseificio where they make the king of cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano.
As with many artisanal foods in Italy, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a protected classification, with a consortium that governs production methods and product quality. Thanks to their measures, Parmigiano-Reggiano is made in very much the same manner as it has been since as far back as the 14th century -- with a few nods to modernity.
Milk is brought in from neighboring farms each day. Each farm's milk is kept separate for batch tracking and quality control. The milk is poured into tremendous, 1200 kg copper kettles. Whey and rennet are added to begin the fermentation process. The milk is heated and agitated, and foam is occasionally skimmed off.
As the curd sets and settles to the bottom of the kettles, the workers bring out massive sheets of cheesecloth to begin the process of extracting the curd.
Thus begins a ballet wherein two of the three workers (there were only three on the floor the entire time) did this delicate dance of hoisting the giant curd up from the bottom. The third carefully positions a large curd knife at precisely the center.
And quickly cuts it neatly in half.
The two halves are then rolled into separate sheets to be tied up and hung to drain off their whey. Each of these will become a wheel of cheese; each kettle produces two wheels, known as "the twins."
We watched this process over and over. I can't overstate how hypnotically beautiful it is.(Video by Flynn de Marco.)
After a while, the whey is drained off. Some of it is kept for the next day's fermentation; the remainder is fed to local pigs that are being raised for prosciutto. You knew there was a reason they went so well together, didn't you?
The drained curds are hauled into forms to set their shape.
Weights are added to press out excess moisture.
Once they have firmed to the right degree, they are transferred to metal forms, within which are plastic sheets that perforate the edge of the wheel with the telltale Parmigiano-Reggiano marking. On top, the wheel is marked with a code denoting the day it was produced, and from which kettle. (This one was made on January 8, from kettle 2.)
Then, they are brined in salt water in huge troughs.
Finally, they are plucked from the brine and left to age on shelves for 18 months. During that time, the rind thickens and hardens, and the cheese cures. These shelves soar up about 40 or 50 feet, and the wheels do need to be periodically turned and dusted, so they have a robot that grabs each wheel and does exactly that. This is, however, the only part of the process that is not done by human hands.
When the cheese is ready to be tested, wheels are brought down and a qualified tester sets them on a stool and taps them with a specialized hammer.
They are listening for flaws in the cheese -- bubbles, cracks, any imperfection. They will not compromise the rind of the cheese, for once it's been broken, the cheese must be consumed. If a cheese has been found to have a minor flaw, like a small bubble, the rind is scored to indicate that, and it is sold, usually locally, at a reduced rate. In cases where they find an imperfection greater than their tolerance, but the cheese is still edible, the markings on the rind are removed altogether, so it cannot be sold as any quality of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and it is sold off very cheaply.
Only the wheels that have passed the quality test can continue to age and be sold as true Parmigiano-Reggiano.
What struck me most about this entire process was the fact that this is truly an artisanal product, but done on a large scale. Producing something of this caliber requires incredible dedication to the process. Parmigiano-Reggiano is made every single day, even Sundays, even Christmas day. The head cheesemaker had been in his role for 35 years and had never once taken a day off. As he prepares to retire, his son-in-law is the heir apparent to the job, so he's probably queuing up for a similar path. I hope he takes a few vacations with his family before then.
By now, we had built up a serious craving for cheese. Our guide brought us up to the front, where she broke out a hunk of 24-month aged Parmigiano. As we took each nugget and broke them between our fingers, it released a perfume. It smelled of grass and wildflowers, of the countryside in Emilia -- it smelled of the very things the cows ate. Happy cows, indeed.
Think I bought some to bring home? Darn tootin'.