I wondered if we were the only people driving around Emilia Romagna with a giant hunk of cheese in our trunk. In a region that is so passionate about food, though, I highly doubted we were alone in our cheese transport, straight from a cheese maker in Italy.
It’s no secret that I love cheese, and I miss it terribly when we are in Asia. In fact, when we made the decision to spend two weeks eating in Emilia Romagna, Eric was of course thinking about cured meats. I however, wanted to eat cheese, and lots of it. I dreamt of surrounding myself with cheese the way children probably dream about chocolate. Luckily, my dream came true.
What Makes Parmigiano Reggiano Special?
Parmigiano Reggiano is a DOP product, meaning there are certain rules and regulations that a cheese maker in Italy must follow in order to certify the cheese as Parmigiano Reggiano. The milk used must come from a particular cow, raised in a particular area and fed particular foods. In fact, the cows can only eat fresh or dry fodder. They are not allowed to eat any fermented products or animal derivatives. This ensures that the milk is of a very high quality even before the production begins.
The DOP cheese maker consortium lays down the law that only three ingredients are allowed in the production of Parmigiano Reggiano: milk, rennet and salt. Rennet is an enzyme that comes from the cow itself, and aids in the curdling process.
The process used to make Parmigiano Reggiano makes the cheese different from a lot of other cheeses, to the point that even lactose intolerant people can eat it. These rules and regulations make Parmigiano Reggiano so good, and so special, rightfully giving it the name The King of Cheeses.
Tracking Down a Cheese Maker in Italy
I won’t pretend to understand the process of how they make Parmigiano Reggiano, or any cheese for that matter. We arrived at Caseificio Montardone, in the hills outside of Modena, just as the cheese experts were getting under way. I did my best to soak it all in. I felt like I had won the golden ticket, to go behind the scenes and observe a cheese maker in Italy make his masterpiece.
The heating process had just completed, and all we saw was a ton of milk placed into several large copper cauldrons. As we observed, the giant hunks of what would become cheese were raised carefully to the top of the cauldron.
We watched as the cheese makers carefully prepared the large mass of cheese to be removed from the cauldron, while it still steamed from the heat.
The cheese was then cut into two parts and wrapped in a traditional cloth. The process of moving the cheese was one that seemed like a well-choreographed dance between the two Italian men, who were trying to explain the process to us in Italian. The process is also painstakingly precise, giving way to the nickname parmigiano babino, or “parmigiano baby”, as the cheese is wrapped and unwrapped, and wrapped again in its comfy little blanket.
It’s then placed into a mould, giving the cheese its signature shape.
After the cheese settles, it is given a unique number, which becomes the cheese’s identity card, along with a branding that provides the month and year of production.
A few days later, the enormous cheese wheel is immersed in a water and salt solution, which seals the wheel.
How To Age Parmigiano Reggiano
Then, my favorite part. This is why I wanted to visit a cheese maker in Italy. I wanted to stand in a room filled wall to wall, floor to ceiling, with giant vats of cheese! My dream came true that morning. Although I did not understand all of the Italian explanations on how the cheese was made, this I understood: that’s a lot of cheese!
The cheese maker, with a huge smile on his face, opened the large door into the aging room and I caught a whiff of a strong cheese smell. It was lovely. I wished I could bottle it, or at least that I had smell-o-vision on my camera to share it with others.
In order to age the cheese, the wheels are set out in long rows in an aging room. The outside of the cheese dries without the addition of any additives, which is why it is possible to eat the rind of a good Parmigiano Reggiano. Nothing goes to waste.
I wandered up and down the aisles, like a kid in a candy store, checking out the hundreds upon hundreds of wheels of quality Parmigiano Reggiano. I was enveloped in an enormous amount of cheese.
The minimum amount of time the cheese is aged according to DOP rules is twelve months. That morning, we were able to taste the cheese that is made at the Caseificio. This included 24 month old cheese, 36 month old cheese, and a special treat, 60 month old cheese. I will wait for you to do the math. Yeah, that’s cheese aged in that special room for five years!
Each successive cheese that we tried was a little chalkier and more crumbly than the one before. In fact, I preferred the 36 month old cheese to the five year old cheese, which was a little too dry for me. Perhaps if it were slathered in some aged balsamic vinegar, my tune would be different.
We wanted to purchase some cheese, to support the Caseificio after they were so welcoming. I tried to order the smallest slice she could make of the giant wheel of three year old cheese, which left me with an enormous chunk of cheese to take with us.
And that is how we ended up driving around Emilia Romagna for two weeks, carrying three year old Parmigiano cheese with us, from an agriturismo, to an apartment in the countryside, to a hotel in Modena, and even almost all the way to the airport. Well, I had wanted to eat a lot of cheese, and this chunk certainly helped.
Sorry there’s no smell-o-vision, but check out my video to get a better idea of the cheese making process:
If you’d like to visit a cheese maker in Italy, Caseificio Montardone can be found at Via Giardini Nord, 7087, Serramazzoni, Modena.
Planning a Trip to Emilia Romagna?
Looking for more travel tips on Emilia Romagna, and how to eat the best food in Italy? My book The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, is available on Amazon now. If you are a NOOK reader, it is also available for download on Barnes and Noble.
More About Our Trip
We were supported during our tour by Emilia Romagna Tourism, but all of my opinions, and all of my yummy sounds, are of course my own.
For more about the food in Emilia Romagna, check out our Emilia Romagna Food Travel Guide.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.