On a recent trip to Italy, I detoured to Bologna to take a food tour focusing on cheese, balsamic vinegar, and prosciutto. For a full month before my trip I dreamt about this tour, I planned my outfit like it was a first date, and I brought it up in conversations as if I were speaking about my best friend. I committed myself to waking before the sun, getting in a car with strangers, and doing it all without coffee. Insane? Maybe.
Confession time: I am a dairy queen. I got the title as an ice-cream eating, milk-chugging child, and it has stuck. The truth is, I will happily ingest dairy in any of its many forms, but cheese is my preferred medium.
And I was going to see how the King of Cheese is made. I was going to a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory.
We first met our guide at the cheese factory. He greeted us at the door and handed us the surgical gear we were supposed to wear before entering. This place was almost clinically clean! The factory consisted of 20 large, round copper vats where the milk and curds were waiting. Each pot was equipped with its own machine to heat and churn the mixture. We learned that we had arrived that early so we could see the all stages of the cheese-making process, and so our tour began with the breaking up of the curds with a giant whisk. Literally giant. It stood over 6 feet tall, and probably brushed 7 feet. This was necessary as the vats were actually wells that went into the floor, and went as deep as the whisk was long.
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The mixture inside each well was broken up by hand by one man, the Head Cheesemaker. Only he knew the exact consistency and size the curds needed to be (about the size of a penny or dime) for the next stage of the process: the heating. A wand was added to the machine next to the well, and it was mixed and heated for about 10-15 minutes, until the small bits were sticking together. The cheese is then left alone for about an hour to settle into one giant mass at the bottom of the vat.
We continued with our tour, but later we returned to the actual cheese-making area to watch the makers lever the hunk of cheese out of the vats.This is a 2-person operation. One person uses the massive wooden paddle to pull up the cheese, and the other person slips the cheesecloth around it, and ties it to a rod that suspends the cheese over the milky vat (the remaining liquid is cooked up to make ricotta). The Head Cheesemaker comes around with the largest knife I have ever seen (perhaps it was literally a machete) and cuts the enormous hunk in half. Each half is then wrapped in its own cheesecloth and left hanging to dry for a bit, before moving to the shaping room.
The cheese is first shaped in a heavy plastic cylinder, to mold it into its famous shape. After a day, each wheel is transferred to a cylindrical cage with tiny holes, and is wrapped in the plastic stencil that provides the official Parmigiano-Reggiano marking that runs repeatedly along the sides. The cheese rests in a cooled room, wrapped in the metal cage, and is flipped every few hours for a couple of days. The caged cheese is then lowered into a salt water bath for almost a month. When the bath is over, the wheels of cheese are removed from their cages, wiped down, and placed in a non-refrigerated room to sweat out the rest of the salt water. The cheese wheel is then moved to a cool, dry room, where it rests for at least 12 months. Ingeniously, a machine has been created that can take each wheel of cheese off the shelf, and flip it over, every 14 days.
And still, after all of this, it is just cheese, and not Parmigiano-Reggiano. It is not granted its famous moniker until after the Cheese Tester from the official production department comes and tests each cheese. Not by tasting it, but by tapping it with a special hammer, and listening for air pockets. If the factory gets approval, the wheel is Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grade 1. If it does not, but isn’t too far off the mark, it can be considered Grade 2. If the air pockets are just too large, it is just cheese, and the markings must be scraped off the wheel. I suppose I expected nothing less from the King. (To Be Continued…).
For an unforgettable culinary experience similar to the one that Michaelanne had, sign up for our full-day tour, “Ham & Cheese: Parma for Foodies.”