If you put me on a desert isle and told me I could eat only one cheese for the rest of my life, (The cheese fairies would deliver it, in case you're wondering) the answer would be a no-brainer: parmigiano reggiano.
I never get tired of the intense flavor, the little crunchy grains of an aged parmigiano between your teeth and the versatility that it offers. You can enjoy a chunk of parmigiano alongside a glass of wine; you can grate it over pasta or vegetables; you can melt it into casseroles or other dishes; you can add the rind to soup to lend more flavor, etc., etc., etc.
In short, it's not called "The King of Cheeses" for nothing. On our recent trip to Italy, we were tootling along in the car one day, hoping to see a few castles in the countryside between Piacenza and Parma. Unfortunately it was a Monday, a day when castles and museums are closed. But lucky for us, I spotted the following building along a road near the town of Soragna:
"Make a U-turn. Quick," I said to my husband. So he did - and we made a beeline back to the Caseificio Sociale Pongennaro, one of the approximately 450 dairies where the king of cheeses is made. And I do mean made. The consortium of parmigiano makers has adopted a slogan of "Non si fabbrica, si fa," meaning that "Parmigiano is not manufactured, it's made," and this implies the use of time-honored methods and no preservatives or additives.
It can only be called parmigiano reggiano if the cows are raised and the cheese is made in any of four provinces in the region of Emilia Romagna: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna.
If you're eating Grana Padano, its sister-cheese, you're also eating a delicious cheese but one made under entirely different standards and from cows that are permitted a broader range of food and that are raised in an area that's twice the size of the area where parmigiano is made.
For a cheese to be called parmigiano reggiano, the cows are permitted to eat forage, mainly hay, grown only in the designated region and the forage must not have been treated with additives nor heated by fermentation. The cows are not allowed to eat any animal by-products or food of animal origin.
Cheese made according to the long list of rules is branded with a variety of marks including the acronym D.O.P. which stands for the Protected Designation of Origin. The dairy is also identified,as well as the production month and year.
In the photo above, the cheese was made in February 2007, hence it was 24 months old when I took the photo.
The cheese is made every day, year round. By 4 a.m. cheesemakers start boiling the milk in huge copper cauldrons.
Unfortunately, we arrived too late to watch the cheesemakers stirring the mixture and draining the curds from the cauldron into molds, but were able to see the huge rounds of cheese as they sat immersed in large vats of salted water. Cheesemakers at the Caseificio Pongennaro make 36 forms a day, each weighing about 40 kilos, or 88 pounds, according to Mara Marenzoni, the wife of Raffaelo Rainieri, one of the 15 partners of the caseificio.
The large rounds of cheese sit for 20 days in the salted water before the aging begins. "You can't call it parmigiano if it has less than one year of aging," Mara said.
The longer the aging, the more complex the taste, although if it has aged much longer than 36 months, the cheese generally takes on a less desirable flavor. The 24-month aged cheese at Caseficio Pongennaro's shop sells for 10.60 euros a kilo (about $14.00 for 2.2 pounds) while the 36-month aged parmigiano sells for 12.40 euros a kilo (about $16.00 for 2.2 pounds).
Now if you want to bring back a whole round of a 36-month aged parmigiano, it'll set you back around $645.00. In Italy, it's not uncommon to find them at weddings or banquets, split in half and served in chunks. However, it might be a little heavy to fit that much into your carry-on luggage. But you can always find room for a kilo or two.
I can leave it to other visitors to Italy to buy the Prada purses, the Armani suits and the Gucci shoes, but I never come back without a supply of Parmigiano cheese. There's no prohibition against bringing back hard cheeses through U.S. customs and the quality is incomparable, especially if you've bought your cheese right at the dairy. The hard part is not eating it all in the first few days of your return. Buon appetito.