The art of making Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is over 800 years old, going back to the 1200’s. Making the cheese can only take place in certain places in northern Italy, specifically the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna. The production starts with the cows, their feed is strictly regulated organic grass grown only in specific areas, which are the same as the production areas. Some 270,000 cows produce milk that goes into making the cheese, the small dairy we went to however, specializes in a specific white cow, so they only have 50 cows in total. They are milked twice per day, and their milk is taken to the cheese house no more than 2 hours after milking.
It takes around 16 litres of milk to produce 1 kilogram of cheese, so it takes about 600 litres of milk to make one wheel of cheese. The first step is to take the milk from the last evenings milking that has settled in large shallow containers, skim the fat off the top, and then put it in a large copper cauldron to be mixed with whole milk from the morning’s milking. After warming the milk in the cauldron, natural whey starter is added. It is a culture of natural lactic ferments obtained from the cheese making process of the day before. Rennet, a natural enzyme from the stomach of suckling calves, is added which causes the milk to curdle. Once the milk has curdled, the cheese maker will take a large wire ball on the end of a rod (called a Spino), and break up the curd into granules smaller than grains of rice. The cheese curds are then cooked for around 10 minutes, after which the granules sink to the bottom of the cauldron, forming one large mass.
30 minutes later all the grains are now just one large wheel of soft cheese. Using a net, they pull out the wheel which weighs over 35 kilograms, and put it into a press to make it the right shape. After 24 hours in the press, it is submerged into a brine, and then placed into the aging room. This room is 30 feet high, with shelves laden with rows upon rows of massive cheese wheels. We then tasted all the different ages of cheese; 12, 24, and 36 month old cheeses. I am amazed at how much work goes into each wheel, and it makes me appreciate homemade cheese so much more.