Our Parmesan

Azienda Igricola Iris - Organic, GM Free Parmesan

In the traditional heartland of Parmesan making, the rolling foothills of the Parma Apennines, lies the second dairy where we buy cheese. The tiny hamlet of Rivalta (350 slm) is home to Azienda Agricola Iris, owned by Umberto Avanzini, his wife Carolina and son Davide. They have 120 cows and produce 3-4 wheels of Parmesan a day, all of which are aged in the village.

At the time of our first visit there, we were becoming increasingly interested in finding a fantastic Parmesan made from herds other than the ubiquitous Friesian. The indigenous breeds in Emilia Romagna, the Vacca Rossa, Parmigiana, Bianca val Padana and Montanara have little future as economically viable alternatives to the Friesian, which can produce as much as 50 ltrs of milk a day.

The Swiss Brown however, a hardy mountain breed introduced last century from Switzerland and highly prized for the quality of its milk, can just about compete. It produces a lot less milk than the Friesian, but due to higher fat and casein levels, proportionally more cheese can be made from the same quantity of Swiss Brown milk. They adapt better to the Apennine environment, and live a lot longer than the Friesian. Currently, only some 9% of Parmesan cows are Swiss Brown but at Azienda Iris they make up approximately 50% of the herd.  


Umberto making the cheese at Azienda Iris.


Umberto is justifiably proud of his small herd and after morning milking goes straight to make the cheese, having learnt at the side of his father Rino who started making Pamesan in 1950 as casaro at the Rivalta cooperative. In 1987 the family started making their own Parmesan using only milk from their own cows. Ten years later they took the radical step of working towards full organic certification and in 2005 their first wheels of organic, GM free Parmesan were sold. This process involved certifying the pasture around the farm and also guaranteeing the organic provenance of the dry feed: in Parmesan production up to 50% of the animals' feed is dry grain. This includes a mix of barley, oats, maize and soya. Cheap imports of GM soya and maize provide the massive majority creating an indirect GM supply chain that many people are unaware of.

This kind of small-scale, high quality Parmesan production is so unusual that Umberto has created his own Iris brand which includes a grading system for his own cheeses to mark himself apart from the mass of Parmesan producers.