Growing up, I never really embraced Parmesan cheese, a stinky powder, which was typically sold in shiny, tinsel-green cylinders.
When I heard the story of the iconic entertainer, Liberace, who mistakenly sprinkled Comet (a doppelganger for the Parmesan tin) on his home-baked lasagna nearly poisoning his dinner guests, I took a hiatus from the cheese for several years.
I have since experienced a cheese conversion, especially during my recent tour of the CIBUS International Food Exhibition held in Parma, Italy. One of the highlights was the discovery of the complicated and exhilarating production of Parmigiano Reggiano (authentic Parmesan) cheese, first created by monks 900 years ago as a means of preserving surplus milk.
The cheese, emblematic to the region of Parma, has put the latter on the map with its pungent aroma and rich flavor. Chunks cut from the golden wheel in which this robust cheese is presented, appear on breakfast and dessert tables accompanied by acacia honey, fig jam and fresh fruits, and shaved onto salads, soups, pizzas, pastas, risottos and eggplant dishes for lunches and dinners.
This ancient cheese is thoroughly ensconced in the culture and tradition of the region, and is even designated by law with the certification acronym DOP, which stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin). This guarantees to the consumer that the product was locally grown, produced and packaged in the region of Parma using traditional and artisanal methods set out by the Consortium.
Wearing hair caps, shoe coverings and lab coats, our group of journalists marveled Consorzio Produttori Latte, sampling different aged cheeses at the end of the adventure. Feeling like a Lilliputian, my jaw dropped at the gargantuan copper caldrons as big as Jacuzzi tubs, and stirring paddles resembling ships’ oars.
But most remarkable was the dedication of the cheese master who, according to Simone Ficarelli, marketing representative with Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, “has only taken six vacation days during the past 40 years.”
Just as remarkable was the process of producing the Parmesan wheel, pampered like a newborn baby — coddled, swathed, bathed in warm, salty water, strictly monitored and cared for daily for up to 36 months in a temperature-controlled environment until branded with its date of birth, the dairy’s logo, and regional certification, only after passing the cheese master’s rigorous tests.
By law, the cheese must stay in the aging room a minimum of 12 months, considered an immature teenager in the cheese world, still soft, pale and difficult to grate. Other cheeses will continue to age until 24 or 36 months.
Ficarelli recommended older cheeses, “as they are more evolved with complex elements like marbles of granulated protein that burst with an umami flavor, and crunch to the teeth.”
But no matter what age of the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, the processing removes all but trace amounts of lactose sugar, making it easily digestible for most people who are typically lactose intolerant.
A Cheese Sidebar
It takes 150 gallons of milk to produce one 80-pound Parmesan wheel.
One in 1,000 wheels fails the cheese master’s test, and is declassified and sold as “grana” or granulated, shredded cheese at half the price of Parmesan.
For centuries cheese masters used their elbows as thermometers. Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma and second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, used her influence to transform the age-old (and potentially injurious) process. She invited Monsieur Reaumur, a French scientist and inventor of the Reaumur temperature scale to Parma to modernize the elbow technique.
Melt-in-your-Mouth Eggplant Parmesan
1 large eggplant, thinly sliced (skin intact)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, and more for pan-frying
1 24-ounce jar crushed Italian tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 handful fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon honey
4 ounces each Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese (aged at least 24 months), shredded and blended
Method: Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. In a saucepan, heat oil on low, and sauté garlic til tender. Add tomatoes, honey, basil and spices, and simmer for 15 minutes. In a large skillet, coat the bottom with olive oil, and pan-fry the eggplant slices in batches until tender, but still firm. Set aside cooked slices on a baking sheet until completed.
In a rectangular, oven-safe baking dish, alternate layers starting with tomato sauce, then eggplant, and repeat. For the top layer sprinkle cheese mixture to make a covering. Bake for about 20 minutes until the cheese is golden and melted. — firstname.lastname@example.org