Parmesan: the real deal

June 04, 2008|By Elaine Glusac | Elaine Glusac,Tribune Media Services

PARMA, Italy -- In the basement of the Parmigiano Reggiano Museum in the heart of the region of Emilia-Romagna, the champions of Italy's best-known cheese showcase the labels of global counterfeits - with pseudo "parmesan" names like Parmasello, Pamesan and Parmella - as if nurturing a wound.

But the hard, somewhat salty cow's milk cheese Americans think of as "parmesan" can no longer be called that in Europe, the result of a recent European Union ruling that the word "parmesan" may refer only to the original and more cumbersomely titled Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese produced in its Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO region.

"The PDO protects consumers by telling them the product actually comes from this small area in Italy where it was originally created," said Cristiana Clerici, who handles international communications for the Italian consortium that regulates and promotes the cheese producers.

Like the appellation d'origine controlee associated with France's wine regions such as Champagne and or the denominazione di origine controllata of Italy's Chianti, PDO refers to a certification system designed to protect the names of high-quality foods made according to traditional methods in defined geographic regions. Foods that have been certified include Connemara Hill lamb from Ireland, Roquefort cheese from France, Dortmunder beer from Germany and Prosciutto di Parma from Italy.

Enforcement of labeling largely relies on bilateral agreements between nations, and Europeans tend to be agreeable with each other. But with Parmigiano-Reggiano, German parmesan makers held out. In February, a European Union court decided that cheese makers other than those in a designated area around Parma, Italy, no longer can call their cheese "parmesan" because "parmesan" is not a generic term.

"It is not possible to make this in any part of the world because of the weather, hot in summer and cold in winter, and the method," said Marco Tanzi who works as a casaro, or cheese maker, at La Traversetolese creamery, one of 454 Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factories.

There are 33 PDO cheeses from Italy, but Parmigiano-Reggiano is considered the king of Italian formaggio, with a history dating to the mid-13th century. The strict rules governing Parmigiano-Reggiano begin by designating a region within which the cheese may be made: the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of Bologna and Mantova.

Cows, required to eat at least 75 percent of grass or hay grown in the region, are milked two times each day, in the morning and in the evening. The evening milk rests overnight, is skimmed and added to the morning's milk for a half-fat cheese. While the milk is heated in 1,300-liter copper pots, whey starter and rennet - an enzyme found naturally in a cow's stomach - is added to create curdling.

The resulting cheese then is lifted via a cloth and eventually compressed into two thick disk-shaped molds. After a few days of bathing in saltwater, Parmigiano-Reggiano ages for 12 to 36 months, developing a richer, sharper flavor over time.

The consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano makers has secured no bilateral agreements with the United States, where "parmesan" refers to everything from the grated Kraft variety to Argentine parmesan made by the descendants of Italian immigrants to South America. The real thing costs more - about $17 per pound at igourmet.com for stravecchio three-year-aged cheese - but aficionados say the quality warrants the price.

"Because of the fact that an entire school of cooking, an important one, that of Emilia-Romagna, is built around Parmigiano-Reggiano, it must be referred to, in my not so humble opinion, as the world's single greatest cheese," said Steven Jenkins, author of the encyclopedic Cheese Primer.

The region's culinary reputation, though highly regarded, isn't the famed olive oil and vegetable-based diet of the south. It is rich in dairy - cheese and butter - as well as beef and pork. "We have a range of products that few regions in Italy have," said chef Marco Dallabona of the Michelin-starred Stella d'Oro restaurant in the small town of Soragna, also home to the cheese museum, 18 miles from Parma.

And Parmigiano-Reggiano contributes to most of the dishes made from those products - shaved generously over pasta as a first course, stuffed into beef loin as the entree and, for dessert, chiseled from the wheel with a diamond-shaped cheese knife.

Elaine Glusac writes for Tribune Media Services.

Two-Potato Tart (Torta di Patate)

Serves 6

4 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled

1 pound all-purpose potatoes, peeled

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

freshly ground nutmeg

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