FLORENCE, Italy – As we visit Parma to observe the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano, I am reminded, once again, of the incredible power of age and time. After walking us through the surprisingly small factory, one of several in the middle of the hilly, green countryside, the owners of the family-run business invited us to enjoy the cheese, bread, cake, cherries and olives that were spread out on a long table outside. The sweet, milky smell of new cheese blew through the wind with the edges of the crisp, white tablecloth that hung over the table. I was eager to taste the cheese after having learned about the careful process used to create some of the most coveted Parmesan in Italy. On one end of the table lay Parmesan aged 24 months. The same type of cheese, aged only 12 months, sat on the opposite end.
My knife slid through the younger, lighter colored cheese smoothly. I noticed a few crunchier crystals as I tasted and chewed the soft Parmesan that was salty with sweet undertones. The older cheese crumbed as I tried to cut it. It was drier and grainier than the younger cheese, but its flavor was more savory and rich. Its scent was reminiscent of warm butter. I noticed more of the delicious crunchy crystals in the older cheese. The cheese aged 24 months, in fact, had more calories, fat, protein, calcium, as well as other vitamins and minerals, than its 12-month-old relative. Something about the density, the evaporating water content, and the process as a whole, made it so.
The older Parmesan I tasted was considered to have reached perfection. Its savory flavor and the ease with which it grated and crumbled made it a tasty addition to many Italian dishes.