Parmesan is the famous cheese made in and around the Italian province of Parma. It is an earlier term for what we know now as Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Parmigiano Reggiano is considered among the top cheeses by cheese connoisseurs, and it has a fascinating history.
The Roman Empire had a concept of naming foods, and even after the fall of Rome in 476 A.D, the people on the Italian peninsula still continued to follow this practice. It was their way of showing pride in its making, and was also a convenient way to describe the food.
During the Middle Ages, it was monks around Parma who first started making a distinctive hard cheese. When the Renaissance came, people in the upper class began producing this fine cheese for their own tables. In Latin, it was known as “caseum paramensis” but the locals shortened it to Pramsàn, in dialect. By roughly 1200 AD, Parmesan had reached the form that it holds today, it has not changed at all since then.
In the early 14th century, from the Parma-Reggio region, Parmesan cheese reached Tuscany. Ships departing from Pisa and Livorno carried it to other Mediterranean ports. In 1254, the first recorded reference to Parmesan documents that a noble woman from Genoa decided to trade her house from an annual supply of 53 pounds of cheese produced in Parma.
The use of Parmesan cheese as a condiment for pasta in Boccaccio’s Decameron tale was immortalized by history. It was a tale about an imaginary gourmet paradise called Bengodi, where cooks rolled macaroni downhill at the summit of a mountain of Parmesan to acquire a coating of the snowy cheese.
In the 1530’s, the cheese was referred to as Parmesano by Italian nobles, which means “of or from Parma”. Since the Italian and French nobility has close ties, it’s no surprise that the name was shortened to Parmesan. It had another name which indicated the Gallic appreciation and that was fromage de Parme.
From the 17th to 19th centuries, due to the close relations between the Dukes of Parma and the French nobility, the name Parmesan became more common. The cheese was also used by a playwright named Moliere as a diet to prolong his life. His diet consisted of twelve ounces of Parmesan and three glasses of port daily. This is because Parmigiano Reggiano is known to be rich in protein and is easy to digest.
Producers who lived closer to Reggio than to Parma referred to their cheese as Reggiano and this name indicating geographical origin only became famous in the 19th and 20th centuries together with the linguistic and political unification of Italy.
The producers of Parma and Reggio-Emilia joined forces with producers in the provinces of Modena and Mantua in 1934. It was to form an association called the Consorzio Grana Tipico and to recognize that they shared the same cheese-making terroir, standardizing the production of their cheeses. Later on, producers from the province of Bologna also joined the group.
The pioneering alliance of cheese makes renamed the group to Consorzio del Formaggo Parmigiano-Reggiano in 1954. With this, they acknowledged the historic role played by Parma and Reggio producers in terms of defining the character of the cheese and the methods of properly creating it.
From that point, Parmigiano Reggiano has been the official name of the cheese which is indicated by the pin dots imprinted on the rind of each wheel. Producers and members of the group see to it that they follow strict standards of its production and they work together to market the cheese and protect its name from imitators.
The European courts announced in 2008 that Parmigiano Reggiano is the only hard cheese that can be legally called Parmesan. They have acknowledged the fact that the word can be traced to Parma and consumers should associate the cheese with its origin in the Parma-Reggio region of Italy. This means that any cheese can’t be called Parmesan unless it conforms to the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) standards for Parmigiano Reggiano.
Today, Parmesan cheese makers still use the old methods to make their cheese to keep it authentic. There are now approximately 350 small dairy producers that make true Parmesan in Italy. It is guaranteed for more than seventy years and more than that, it is loved for its generous taste since nine centuries.
Characteristics and Facts
Parmigiano Reggiano is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and has a hard, gritty texture with a fruity and nutty in taste. It is made only with three ingredients such as cow’s milk, salt, and rennet, and it is not a vegetarian cheese. A full wheel of parmesan usually weighs 20 kilograms and about 600 liters of milk is needed to produce it.
Aside from its fascinating history and the exclusiveness of its name, another interesting thing about Parmigiano Reggiano is that there’s a special knife used to cut it in Italy which is called Almond Knife. It has an almond-shaped blade and is shorter than any normal knife with a short and stubby wooden handle.
This cheese has a natural rind and a strong aroma. It is usually grated over pastas, and used in soups and risottos. Aside from that, it can also be eaten on its own as a snack.
It is amazing to know that the cheese we have today is still identical to the Parmesan cheese that has been made centuries ago. It still has the same appearance, fragrance, and is still made in the same places with the same expert ritual gestures.