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Sunday, November 28, 2010

How to make Parmesan Cheese

After we left Castelrotto we drove east towards Cortina and spent the next day or so exploring the eastern and southern Dolomites. We had an extra day before we were due in Florence and didn't really know where to go. A quick google search and tripadvisor consultation and we decided that we would go to Parma. Thats right, land of parmesan cheese and parma ham. *cue angels singing*

We ended up at the highly recommended Agriturismo Leoni, a working dairy farm that gives tours of the parmesan cheese coop that it is a part of. Best. Decision. Ever. We ended up being the only two people in the tour the next day (bonus points for traveling off-peak) and it was definitely in our Top Three Italy experiences.

Without further to make parmigiano reggiano cheese:

1. Milk the cows. Not just any cows - these cows can only be a very specific type of cow, they cannot roam the fields, they must stay inside and eat a very specific diet of grains and grasses.

2. Take the milk to the cheese factory and dispense into large metal vats.

3. Let the milk sit for 8 hours and then skim off the fat that has risen to the top (the fat is taken away to be churned into butter). Add more milk and drain into the copper vat.

4. Add whey and rennet and crank up the heat to cook the mixture.

5. Once the soft cheese curds collect at the bottom of the vat the cheese is scooped up into muslin and hung to drain.

6. After draining (the left over whey liquid is drained, mixed with cereal grains and fed to the pigs that are later used to make parma ham) the cheese is cut into two, each weighing approximately 45 kilos (thats 100lbs for you folks in the US).

*at this point the cheese has very little taste - it is basically semi-skimmed cheese curds, believe me - I tasted it*

7. The cheese wheels are then put into a round mould and shortly after moved to a metal mould that has an adjustable buckle (to be tightened as the water dries out) for 24-48 hours.

8. At this point the cheese is wrapped in a plastic belt with the iconic parmigiano reggiano name stamped into it, along with the plant number and date the cheese was produced, and sits for another 24 hours.

9. Finally the cheese is removed from the moulds and immersed in a salt water bath (60% salt content) and left to cure for 20-25 days.

10. After brining for 3 weeks the cheese is removed and brought to the aging room (aka heaven on earth) and aged for a minimum of 1 year and a maximum of 3 years.

11. After 12 months of aging an employee of the Consorzio inspects every.single.cheese. They tap it with a hammer and depending on the sound that the cheese makes the Consorzio decides if it passes or not. If it passes then the wheel of cheese is branded with the Consorzios logo and immediately worth hundreds and hundreds of euros.

If it doesn't pass it gets an X or line across the outside and is sold as lesser quality cheese. Considering it takes a minimum of 13 months (1 month to make the cheese, 12 months to age it) before the producers even have a chance at making any money from the cheese, you better hope that every single one of your cheeses passes the inspection.


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