The History of Parmesan Cheese

Parmesan is one of a category of cheeses called grana because of their grainy texture. They are made throughout northern Italy and for centuries a war was waged over whose grana was considered the most prestigious. The cheeses made around Parma and Reggio in Emilia Romagna eventually won, with those of the other regions being lumped under the name of Grana Padano, after the name for the Po river valley. Over the years, Parmesan found fame all over Europe: In Italy, Boccaccio dreamt of a huge pile of grated Parmesan in his Decameron of 1348, in France it is said that Moliere would eat nothing else in the final years of his life and in England, Samuel Peyps hastily buried his Parmesan to save it from the Great Fire of London.

Despite its fame and popularity, production of the cheese remained small until the start of the 20th century when between 1894 and 1914 it shot up sixfold as diary farmers grouped together into more efficient cooperatives and improved transport saw Parmesan exported to Austria, Hungary, France and the United States.

In 1910 the first milk inspection office was established in Reggio Emilia.The purpose of the office was to "promote the sale of milk and to guarantee its quality, to examine the milk with regards to its suitability for the production of cheese, to give an identity to Parmigiano Reggiano and to protect it from imitations, as well as to promote and support any initiative for the defence and the improvement of the dairy industry of Reggio". 

The effect of World War 1 was to gravely damage the agrarian economy in general and the dairy sector in particular.The post war years were ones of struggle not helped by the production of Reggianito cheese, a cheap Argentinian imitation that flooded Parmesan’s potential export markets.The ancient and on-going rivalry between the towns of Parma and Reggio also prevented positive progress in the industry: in truth, the territory of Reggio enjoyed superior productivity and quality but the name of the town of Parma linked it by a centuries-old tradition to the cheese.

The creation of the Parmesan Consorzio in Reggio in 1934 was designed in part to put an end to this constant squabbling.