By Hannah Dustman
PARMA, Italy –Samuela Cavani’s eyes widen as she rattles off the cheese production process, primarily in Italian, and smiles widely as we filed through the storage house.
Wheels of traditional, handmade Parmigiano Reggiano cheese line the wooden shelves of her family-run Societa’ Agricola Saliceto cheese farm, as approximately 40 Mizzou students took turns entering into the small, plain white storage house to learn more about the iconic food of the region.
Parmigiano Reggiano has been produced in the Poe River and Apennine mountain area for the past 800 years, starting a long-lasting tradition of high quality and all-natural Parmesan cheese. Every step is regulated, beginning with feeding the cows.
Here’s the steps to create traditional Parmigiano Reggiano:
Step 1: The fresh milk is brought to the milk house and placed into holding basins where the cream naturally separates overnight, resulting in partially skimmed milk.
Step 2: The partially skimmed milk from the night before is added to whole milk gathered in the morning, and both are mixed and warmed in a large copper cauldron.
Step 3: Natural whey starter and natural rennet enzyme are added to the milk mixture then whisked by a large tool called a spino.
Step 4: The milk enters the cooking process that is carefully controlled by the Parmigiano maker, which results in a single mass of cheese.
Step 5: The cheese is removed from the cauldron and placed in a mold to rest for a couple of days.
Step 6: After resting, the cheese is placed to soak in a salt water solution for 18 days.
Step 7: The Parmigiano Reggiano is removed from the solution and set on the wooden shelves to begin a minimum 12-month slow aging process.
Step 8: Finally, the cheese wheel is inspected and awarded the certification mark of authentic Parmigiano Reggiano if it passes inspection. The certified cheese is stamped with specific labels, indicating it is indeed traditional Parmigiano.
But the most important step for me was cheese tasting. Three round platters of Parmigiano sat upon a long white folding table, which also included a bowl of sweet honey and pitcher of water. We were instructed to taste each of the three ages of the Parmigiano – 12, 24 and 36 months.
I lightly coated my cracker with a small chunk of cheese and drizzled a light dusting of honey on top. The 12 month cheese suited me best, over both the 24 and 36 month wheels, because of its lighter and creamier texture. The dense and dry older cheeses were a point of pride for the family-run cheese operation, however. The mother-daughter duo who assisted us throughout the visit to the farm took care to explain the production process. This work, I could tell, and this cheese was something they cherished.