What is popularly referred to as parmesan around the world is considered to be the "king of cheeses" in Italy. Unlike the grated variety sold in groceries, authentic parmesan is made according to strictly enforced traditional methods and can only be produced in a legally designated area of origin. To bear the official name Parmigiano-Reggiano, the cheese must be handcrafted in the provinces of Parma, Modena, Mantua, Reggio Emilia, and Bologna with raw milk sourced exclusively from free-range cows grazing in the area. Likewise, the production season for Parmigiano-Reggiano follows a specific schedule; the cheese can only be made between April 1 and November 11 with the ripening time allowed to extend at least until the summer of the following year.
The young cheese is made in the dairy, following a prescribed set of manual steps before it's pressed into metal or wooden molds the shape of a drum (also called wheels). Only when the cheese starts to form a rind is the trademark Parmigiano-Reggiano and the date of production stamped on its side.
After the cheese is dried at the dairy for three to four weeks, parmesan from various producers are sent to massive communal storerooms where they continue to ripen for up to 36 months. In the critical first year of maturation, the cheese needs to be turned every four or five days, and in the following months, every 10 days. After its first year in storage, the Parmesan is constantly tested for quality by independent inspectors and only when it passes the cheese master's criteria is it branded with the seal of quality and delivered for consumption.
Authentic parmesan offered in local markets and gourmet grocers around the world offer the cheese in various stages of maturity and priced according to their age. Most Parmigiano-Reggiano wheels sold in the market have been aged between 18 to 24 months, with rarer ones matured for as many as three years. Quality parmesan has a characteristic hard, granular texture and tangy, slightly sharp, and nutty taste—with older cheeses expressing a more complex and nuanced flavor.
Prosciutto di Parma
There's a noticeable hint of Parmigiano-Reggiano in every bite of Parma ham and that's probably because the pigs used for the luxurious leg of ham have been raised on a diet that includes whey left over from the production of Parmesan cheese. Like the strictly controlled cheese-making tradition that guarantees the quality and authenticity of parmesan, the origin and production of prosciutto di Parma is legally protected and monitored. Only pigs from authorized farms are slaughtered at the age of io months, but only if they have reached the recommended weight of 350 pounds. The prescribed weight is necessary to ensure that a thick layer of fat grows around the tender meat of the pig, protecting it from drying out during the ageing process.
The quality of the pig is only one of the main ingredients that gives Parma ham its unmistakable flavor; another important factor is the time-consuming procedure used to cure and mature the leg of ham. In the first phase, the ham is salted and kept in a cold room in order to draw the water out of the meat. The meat is also beaten from time to time to accelerate the penetration of salt into the animal's fiber. Only then is the ham washed and hung in the communal storehouses that dot the hills of Parma where they mature for a few months. Authentic prosciutto di Parma takes over io months to a year to mature, but many are made to age longer in order to provide the meat with an even more delicate flavor.
The role of Parma's microclimate is another critical factor to achieving the dry cured ham's taste. The legs of ham are hung to dry in huge storehouses similar to those used to ripen Parmesan. Using generational knowledge and experience, the louvered windows are adjusted to limit the amount of air and control the temperature inside the storehouse. The quality of the maturing ham is monitored closely throughout the ageing process and if the standards are satisfactorily met, the leg is branded with the prestigious hallmark of Parma.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale
Like Parma ham and parmesan cheese, traditional balsamic vinegar from Italy is legally protected and only vinegar handcrafted in the area of Modena in Emilia-Romagna qualifies as genuine. Unfortunately, this is often confused with a cheaper variety that's produced in factories in and around Modena, which, although pleasant in taste, doesn't compare with the silky smooth texture and rich, multi-dimensional flavor of the original. Telltale signs of the genuine, artisanal version are its expensive price, diminutive bottles, and the official declaration "aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena" displayed on the label.
The production of artisanal vinegar goes back to the Middle Ages and today follows a precise set of procedures, according to the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena regulations. According to these regulations, only grapes traditionally cultivated in Modena can be used for making the vinegar, local trebbiano and lambrusco grapes, in particular. The pressed juice or must of the grapes is heated and reduced to a sweet and thick liquid that's later stored with an amount of vinegar in wooden barrels kept in the expansive lofts of larger producers or the attics of family-owned brands.
Aceto balsamico develops its unique flavor from being poured from one barrel to another. The complex ageing process takes place in a series of small barrels made of different kinds of woods of decreasing volume. Every year, using a special method of decanting, the smallest cask of the sequence provides a few liters of the products, while the reduction in volume is compensated for by adding the cooked grape must or liquid to the largest cask. It's a procedure not unlike making cognac and no vinegar can be released to the market unless it is at least 12 years old.
Photographs by Jar Concengco & Ian Castañares
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 17 2014.