Parmigiano Reggiano – A visit to the Caseificio

It was early morning. Sally and Lisa still looked a little green, but were game to give the tour day a try.

Our driver, Roberto, spoke little English. His son Andrea a little more, but both were cheerful companions. .We had a full day planned to see the delicacies of Parma being made. With a bit of a language barrier, we would rely heavily on visuals.

First stop – Caseificio Lasignano Bagni, where making Parmigiano Reggiano has been a family business for at least 3 generations. When we arrived, the process was well under way.

Making the cheese began the night before. After the evening milking, the milk is delivered and placed in the long, shallow pans shown here. The cream rises to the top and is partially skimmed, and the cream will be made into butter. When the morning milk arrives the next day, the whole milk is mixed with last night’s skimmed milk to make the cheese.

The beautiful copper cauldrons are steam jacketed and the milk is heated to about 90 degrees F. A tiny amount of cascio (calf rennet) is added which enables the milk to develop a curd in less than ½ hour. The curd is then stirred using a spino, also shown in the photo, which acts like a giant whisk and breaks the curd down into rice-sized pieces.

Our cheesemaker then set the curds to stir with an automatic mixer. During this time the temperature was being raised slowly to about 130 degrees F to “cook” the curds. The curds expel whey during the process.

The cheesemaker was checking them with his hand repeatedly until they gained exactly the right consistency. This is where art and experience come into play.

When the curds are just right, they are allowed to rest for a time. The real show begins after that, as a large cheesecloth is slipped below the curds and around them. Each batch makes two cheeses weighing from 55 to 88 pounds after pressing, so the curds have some serious heft. Two men struggle mightily to lift the curds from the vessel and onto a pan to drain. Unfortunately, we had to move on before the curds were ready so we missed this wrestling match.

The cheese is then formed in a wooden form overnight and allowed to drain. The next day a plastic band is inserted in the from that presses into the cheese the legend “Parmigiano Reggiano” which you will see on every piece of genuine parmigiano you buy, together with the date of production and the code of the plant which produced it. The day after that they are refitted into the stainless forms shown here for another day.

This photo also shows Sally, still in recovery, enjoying the pungent aroma of fresh cheese.

The cheeses are then soaked in a saturated brine for about 3 weeks. The salt is replenished and each cheese is turned daily to ensure even exposure to the salt. With a cheese this big, you can imagine it takes a lot of salt to penetrate all the way to the inside of this mass.

After salting, the cheeses are moved to a cellar where they are held at about 68 degrees F. They are turned daily for about 3 weeks to ensure even distribution of moisture and butterfat. Thereafter they are turned and brushed regularly while they ripen. Cheeses are matured for a minimum of 12 months. 18 months is more common and cheeses up to 36 months of age are available in good formaggeria.

Many producers ship their cheeses to huge warehouses owned by a consortium of banks for the aging process. That way, they are able to borrow against their cheeses instead of waiting years before they sell. The average price for a single cheese is about 400 euro. The bank will lend 280 euro to the cheesemaker, until the product is sold.

A statue of a pig adorns the grounds of the caseificio. In Parma, the making of parmigiana is closely linked to the raising of pigs. The whey from the cheese is sold for the feeding of pigs. Pigs selected for making Prosciutto di Parma must be fed on this whey and on the rinds left over from parmigiano cheese. But then, who can argue with the combination of Ham and Cheese?

More on this connection to come…

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