Here we are an American family of 4, living in Spain and exploring Italy! We love Spain, but I must admit we love Italy too. Especially the food! As you know, Alan isn’t a big foodie, so you may have guessed, he doesn’t “get into” cheese. It just so happens that I love cheese, well most of them anyway. The kids and I were walking through the lobby of our hotel in Bologna and noticed there was a little happy hour snack out at the bar. Of course, the kids and I can’t pass up free samples of anything, so we ventured over to see what it was.
OH MY! It was a little toasted slice of baguette with a fresh and I mean really fresh thin slice of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese with a dab of balsamic vinegar on top. The kids were a bit gun-shy at first as they are familiar with “the real deal” when it comes to Parmesan cheese. You know they are used to the little dry flakes that are in that plastic container or in the bowl at the restaurant with a spoon. So what do we do? Well, we all dive in of course. It was a bit strong for the kids, but they liked it until the after taste. Me on the other hand could have gobbled the entire platter. YUM!
I let them know we were scheduled to go on a tour of the dairy where this cheese was made 3 days later. They couldn’t wait to see how it was made. Time to see if we could figure out how this cheese was made.
Come with me behind the curtain on our photo tour, where the Parmigiano-Reggiano magic begins.
We made an appointment directly with the dairy and were advised to arrive at 8:30am. Of course we arrived early, as our general rule is to allow plenty of time to get lost on the way. We were greeted in the parking lot and invited directly into the dairy. We were expecting a big tour group and having to look behind the glass to see what was going on. Instead, we received a 90 minute personal tour and actually watched the process from nearly start to finish. This would not happen in the U.S., we would have to be very sanitary and all covered up or something. All of this was FREE, so frugal little me was ecstatic.
A beautiful morning in Modena, Italy that is until the kids asked “Who cut the cheese?” As you enter you are hit like a ton of bricks with a strong smell. It was fine for me and Lars settled in after a bit, but surprisingly Anya was the one with the aversion. She wanted to leave right away, but was a trooper and stuck it out.
We watched closely as the master cheese maker crafted his piece of art. We learned that the 50% of the milk is fresh from that morning and the other 50% is from the afternoon milking the day prior. In order to be certified Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, they need to follow specific regulations. These state they need to use milk from 2 specific breeds of cow that are from the Modena region.
The tanks are larger at the top and funnel down to a deep cylindrical well at the bottom. The Cheese maker carefully stirs the mixture.
Here he is checking thinks out for the proper consistency. We asked what kind of schooling the cheese maker needed and she said, “Just hands-on experience”. He likely learned as a boy by working in the dairy until it was just second nature. They still follow the same process to make the cheese as they did hundreds of years ago, just using modern technology to help out here and there. His hands are even in the milk and that is just accepted as part of the process. Hmmm, again I don’t think that would be accepted in the U.S., but it is yummy cheese.
We were then taken to another room where they stored the plastic molds. This room too had a very unique smell, a bit different from the room with the fresh milk. Thank goodness there was an open window for Anya to stand near. We were briefly in this room and then on through a small hallway to the next.
This was a refrigerated room with all of the cheese cinched in perforated metal vices. It turns out this is how they imprint the name and logo on the cheese. It comes to this stage after the molding process. Each one is marked with a batch number and other identifiers.
Next comes the salt bath. Each cylinder is placed in a salt water solution for 14-16 days. The are turned so there is an even coating. This helps build a thick outer layer or skin on the cheese. (Okay I know that sounds kind of disgusting, but that what helps give it the shelf life).
The next step in the aging process. The lighter the cheese (left) the younger. After about 12 months an inspector comes to check the quality of the cheese. After tapping with a small hammer and listening to the sound as well as many other tests, they cheese is then certified or not. If it is approved, they will burn a mark on the side of the cheese as those that are pictured on the right as well as the close up below.
All of the markings you see are either from the metal vice mold, the certification burn or edible stamps. All of the data about this particular cylinder of cheese is located directly on it, in case they need to trace a batch back to the specific date, time, cows etc.
I think we all loved this part of the tour, the turning and dusting machine. This machine goes up and down every single aisle (and there were several) and turns over and dusts each and every cylinder of cheese as it ages. They only consider the cheese ready for consumption after 18-36 months of aging, so that is a lot of turning and dusting for this little guy.
At this point of the tour, we were waiting for the cheese to settle so we could see them remove it from the big metal vats. What better to do than to swing by their shop and do a little taste testing. I was very pleased that the entire Wagoner family tasted the cheese. Only Lars and I went back for seconds, thirds okay maybe 4ths! It was delicious and we even had to make a small 1/2 kilo purchase. It was a bit more than I wanted to buy, but it was the smallest they had. A tip if you are in the area, buy it directly from the dairy. It was only €12 per kilo at the dairy and the same exact cheese was nearly €19 per kilo at the local supermarket.
I know we already tasted the final product, but it was time to see the cheese child born, all 76 kilos of it. When we arrived they were making the cheese and now it was ready to remove from the vat. They took a long wooden spatula and pried it out from the bottom. Then quickly placed a cheese cloth under and tied it up on a thick steel bar.
Here it was left in the little cheese hammock to drain and settle. Then off to the mold it goes.
With the remaining milk they are able to process further and make Ricotta cheese. Who knew? We didn’t taste this cheese, but it was fascinating to see the entire process. And with that the tour was complete and we were on our way. We would really like to that Parmigiano-Reggiano for their time and hospitality. We all really enjoyed the tour, even though our noses had a bit of a shock here and there.
Here is more information about the dairy and some essential information if you would like to book your own tour. Parmigiano-Reggiano has 5 local dairies to choose from. I am sure there are other brands you could contact as well, but we really enjoyed the personal attention provided here.