For true cheese lovers, there are few experiences that match the pleasure of savoring a perfectly aged, fresh-cut sliver of Parmigiano Reggiano. One of the three or four incomparable cheeses of the world, this is the pride of an Italian food tradition dating back almost 800 years.
Parmigiano Reggiano is a hard granular cheese, named after the producing areas near Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Bologna.
Under Italian law only cheese produced in these provinces may be labeled "Parmigiano-Reggiano", while European law classifies the name as a PDO (protected designation of origin). Parmesan is the French-language name for it and also serves as the loose term for the cheese in the English language. The name Parmesan is used for cheeses imitating Parmigiano-Reggiano, with phrases such as Italian hard cheese adopted to skirt legal constraints.
At 12 months, the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano inspects each and every cheese. A master grader whose only instruments are a wooden hammer and his ear tests the cheese. By tapping the wheel at various points, he can identify undesirable cracks and voids within the wheel. Those cheeses that pass the test are then heat branded on the rind with the Consorzio's logo. Special seals identify the product as authentic, with the identification number of the dairy, the production month and year, a code identifying the individual wheel and stamps regarding the length of aging.
Traditionally, cows must be fed only on grass or hay, producing grass fed milk. Only natural whey culture is allowed as a starter, together with calf rennet.
The only additive allowed is salt, which the cheese absorbs while being submerged for 20 days in brine tanks saturated to near total salinity with Mediterranean sea salt. It's then aged an average of two years and has a delightful range of flavors; nutty, creamy, fruity,sweet or grassy.
The average Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel is about 18–24 centimeters (7.1–9.4 in) high, 40–45 centimeters (16–18 in) in diameter, and weighs 38 kilograms (84 lb). According to legend, Parmigiano-Reggiano was created in the course of the Middle Ages in Bibbiano, in the province of Reggio Emilia. Its production soon spread to the Parma and Modena areas. It was praised as early as 1348 in the writings of Boccaccio. During the Great Fire of London of 1666, Samuel Pepys buried his ‘Parmazan' cheese, as well as [his] wine and some other things’ in order to preserve them.
The name is trademarked, and in Italy there is legal exclusive control exercised over its production and sales by the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese Consorzio.