Parmesan Must Be Perfect

February 24, 1991|By Jan Fitzpatrick

Marcella Hazan, the Julia Child of Italian cooking, vows sh has never spent a day without it nearby in the fridge.

It has adorned the tables of popes, knights and kings for nearly a millennium.

And in the 14th century, Giovanni Boccaccio paid memorable tribute to this Italian original, Parmesan cheese, in his collection of tales, "The Decameron."

In one tale, a simpleton named Calandrino listens rapturously to a tale about the faraway land of Bengodi, where vines are tied up with sausages, streams of wine trickle through the land, and, best of all, there's a mountain of Parmigiano. Bengodi's fortunate inhabitants spend their days cooking pasta in chicken broth, then rolling each bit down the mountain to gild it in the cheese's spirited flavor before it pops onto the tongues of diners at the bottom.

Through their history, Italians have had a knack for transforming the ordinary into the dazzling, whether it be a ceiling adorned by the hand of a Michaelangelo or Correggio, or a car like a Maserati that purrs as it laps up the kilometers. This Italian passion for perfection goes some distance toward explaining how this smallish country of 58 million people has created one of the world's great cuisines.

From antipasti to zabaglione, many Italian dishes are simplicity itself for the cook to put together. There are no long lists of ingredients that mask basic flavors. But for that very reason, say Italian culinary authorities like Ms. Hazan and Giuliano Bugialli, it's important to use absolutely the best ingredients you can come by. Every ingredient should make a statement. Ms. Hazan believes so strongly in the importance of using genuine Italian Parmesan cheese when the recipe calls for it that she squires her students to the countryside to see the cheese made.

"Parmigiano-Reggiano," as it is known in Italy and in well-stocked cheese alcoves of American supermarkets and Italian specialty stores, is made in a prescribed area of North Central Italy near the cities of Parma and Reggio Emilia. Just as a bottle of Bordeaux wine comes from local grapes fermented and aged in accordance with the customs of France's Bordeaux region, so too is Parmigiano-Reggiano a regional specialty. Although Americans might refer to any grating cheese as Parmesan, Italians call this class of pale, grating cheeses "grana," a reference to the grainy texture of the members of the group, which also includes the saltier, sharper tasting Romano.

In fact, the name Parmigiano is restricted by law in Italy to refer only to cheese made according to the exacting rules of the

Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, the co-op for dairy farmers who make this golden food. The rules spell out everything, from the kind of cow that must be used (a Holstein), to what she must eat, to how this fragrant product from her milk must be handled at each stage of a process that typically takes two years from milking to marketing.

As I watched the process recently at a dairy near Parma, cheesemakers showed an almost monkish devotion to making this pure, wholesome food. Cheesemaking at each of the nearly 900 independent dairies in the region of zona tipica begins in the evening when the cows are milked.

Every cow is treated like bovine royalty: A Parmigiano milking cow is never left to graze in the pasture, where God knows what might pass her lips. Instead, fresh mown grass and hay -- and never any silage, which might affect the flavor of her milk -- is delivered to her stall. Each cow's milk is carried -- not pumped -- to the cheesemaking area in sterile milk cans, since pumping it could alter the delicate molecular structure, explains Leo Bertozzi, a chemist for the Consorzio.

Overnight, the cream from the evening milk rises to the top, where some is skimmed off for butter. (Parmigiano has at most 2.4 percent butterfat, which is less than the 3.5 percent butterfat contained in whole milk.) The partially skimmed remaining milk is mixed with whole milk from the next morning's milking, and poured into enormous copper caldrons that look like upended church bells.

Extravagant quantities of milk go into the cheese. Each copper cauldron holds 1,100 liters, or 290 gallons. That much will make two 80-pound wheels of Parmigiano; thus, it takes nearly two gallons of milk to make a pound of Parmigiano.

Though Americans aren't used to thinking of Parmesan cheese as a health food, advertisements in Italy promote it as the perfect food for the very young and old. Italian pediatricians advise mothers to enrich baby foods with it, and gerontologists prescribe it as a healthful supplement for the elderly with poor appetites. Parmigiano's long aging, low moisture content, and high ratio of milk to finished cheese (about one cup of milk for every ounce of cheese) mean that it's not only exceptionally rich in calcium and phosphorus, but that it has a higher protein content (36 percent) than any other kind of cheese. It is also lower in fat than many cheeses.

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