Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Master of Parmigiano-Reggiano

Wednesday Morning, September 6, 2006 We are greeted at the door of the production factory by a tall, friendly Italian gentleman with dark hair, chiseled features and taut muscles. He bears a striking resemblance to a stone statue of a Roman deity one might find in a piazza. He is, in fact a deity of the land. He is the cheese master at a Parmigiano-Reggiano production center, a short drive from Bologna.

Dressed in a long, plastic white apron, he offers a welcoming handshake and ushers us into the production center. Much like the seven labors of Hercules, the Master of Parmigiano-Reggiano must endure multiple labors to produce a cheese that meets the rigorous standards of the agricultural region. Inside the tiled production facility it is moist and humid. Using a process that began hundreds of years ago, the staff brings in the morning and evening milk from the cows, which is then heated. Massive copper vats are filled with the hot, milky brew and the cheese master and his assistants work rapidly, dragging large sheets of white muslin through the soup collecting the pale white solids that have accumulated in the tanks. At this point, the curds are flavorless. The cheese master then presses the solids firmly into round plastic molds which are left to dry for several days.

The large disks of cheese are cured for many days in a vat of salt water, about the size of a basketball court. A large mechanical system of hooks and open shelving is used to submerge the cheese in the salt water baths.

The cheese is stamped with a unique serial number and date, stored, and over time the rind begins to take on its distinctive copper patina. We are allowed a glimpse in the warehouse where hundreds and hundreds of rounds of cheese are stacked floor to ceiling and for months will age and season to perfect ripeness.

A staff member pulls a hefty round of cheese from the shelf and slices open the disk with a knife that looks like a large surgical tool. The deep amber rind is pulled away and we get our first look at the result of the cheese master’s labors. Inside, the cheese is wheat colored with a soft, quartz-like texture. We pull off large chunks from the wheel by hand, and take a bite. The Parmigiano-Reggiano pops on the tongue and offers many dimensions. It is sometimes crunchy then smooth. Creamy and then salty. There are dry mineral undertones and flavors of toasted bread. And, it is fresher than anything of its kind I’ve ever sampled at home. It is certainly the food of gods and a Herculean effort from the Master of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

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