There are two types of people in the world: those who say “yes” when a waiter asks if you’d like freshly-grated Parmesan, and those who don't. Well, despite being a self-proclaimed turophile (yes, there really is a name for cheese-lovers), I have to confess I’ve never been a fan of Parmesan. To me, the cheese tastes dry and relatively flavorless. However, I properly learned how to eat Parmesan, or more specifically Parmigiano-Reggiano, and it completely changed my opinion of the famous Italian cheese.
For many, Parmesan is associated with the green plastic tubes and chalky, white powder that existed at our childhood tables on "Italian night." Let's be clear, that is not Parmigiano-Reggiano, according to Federico Bolla, who recently hosted a Cheese 101 event I attended at the Institute of Culinary Education. As a representative of the Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium, the organization that has enforced the standards for all official Parmigiano-Reggiano since 1928, Bolla described his first time tasting the imposter cheese at the event, saying jokingly, “It didn’t have the flavor I was expecting."
He's not wrong. Real Parmigiano-Reggiano tastes nothing like the Parmesan many of us grew up with — and for good reason. "Parmesan" is the term used to describe cheese made outside the traditional regions of production in Italy, requiring far fewer regulations. On the other hand, Parmigiano-Reggiano is the official term used to describe a cheese made within the Parma region of Italy with a very specific, rigid set of standards.
In fact, tried-and-true Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced with so much care, it's practically an art form. "You can’t make good cheese without good milk," said Bolla. And boy oh boy, a lot of care is put into making good milk: fields that haven't been plowed for hundreds of years, 70 varieties of herbs, and an ancient breed of cow known specifically for their rich milk. (Yep, you read that right: ancient cows!)
Furthermore, cheesemakers must ascribe to the same techniques used by monks in the Middle Ages and aged for a minimum one year. During that time, the massive 80 pound wheel is set on wooden shelves to be turned and cleaned once a week. It's cleaned regularly because, believe it or not, cheese sweats. At the end of the aging period, the cheese wheels are inspected by an expert for undesirable qualities, like cracks on the rinds. Wheels that pass are given a heat-branded stamp of approval, whereas wheels that don't pass are stripped of their rinds and marked to inform buyers that it's not top-quality. Ouch.
Cracking open a wheel is no small task. As Bolla said, “The cracking of the wheel is an event in itself." In a live demonstration, opening the wheel took several minutes, ultra-sharp tools, and, at times, the full body power of two or three people. Once open, the wheel emitted a delicious, aromatic scent in the air.
According to Bolla, the center of the wheel is the most delicious. However, Bolla also claimed that Italians have a mentality of cooking to avoid waste — and the importance of using every part of the wheel, including the rind. In fact, he recommended using the rind for things like flavoring sauce (yum!) or cut into squares and used as an alternative to croutons (double yum!).
Naturally, once the wheel was broken, we all scrambled to break off flakes of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano right from the center. Trust me when I say, it was nothing like the "Parmesan" I'd tasted before. It was dry and hard like most Parmesan products, yes, but it was also shockingly smooth, earthy, and full of flavor. I never thought this was the type of cheese that could be eaten plain — but I was wholly proved wrong. I could easily see myself enjoying it at home with some crackers, a glass of wine, and an episode of The Bachelorette.
Not only can Parmigiano-Reggiano be enjoyed directly from the wheel, we enjoyed the classic cheese in a variety of forms inspired by eggplant Parmesan, as prepared by Chef Mauro Rossi, including as a foam, a broth, and a crisp.
If you're looking to have an authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano experience for yourself, take Bolla's advice: "Grate it at home." He assured us it only takes a minute or two longer, and the flavor is so much more satisfying. Of course, not all of us have kitchen storage fit to store an ample 80-pound wheel, but you can buy a smaller wedge or block at your local grocery store, just look for markings that identify Parmigiano-Reggiano branding. For example, if the rind is visible, the words "Parmigiano-Reggiano" should be branded across the outside. Otherwise, a yellow and red logo from the Consortium should be visible when buying cheese that has been grated or shredded.
Can't seem to finish a wedge in time? According to Bolla, mold is a normal part of cheese production, and any mold that may grow can safely be cut off and rinsed with white vinegar and water before being enjoyed. In fact, a wedge can stay good in your fridge for several months — that is, if you can keep yourself from eating it all in one sitting.