The History of Parmesan Cheese
Today, it is still the Consorzio that enforces the strict rules governing the zone of production in Emilia Romagna, the cheese making process and animal management.
Each Parmesan dairy is a paying member of the consortium who in turn gives them their own identifying number. To sell their cheese as Parmesan every single wheel has to be tested after 12 months by one of the dozen or so Consorzio inspectors who, by tapping the cheese with a hammer, can tell if the internal structure of the cheese is correct. The cheese is then pierced with a screw-needle to extract a minute sample of the contents. The resistance of the cheese indicates something of its internal consistency, and the sample enables the expert to judge the aroma and degree of maturation.
If it passes, the wheel is branded with the Consorzio’s seal. If it has a number of minor flaws it will be ringed with horizontal lines and cannot be sold beyond 24 months old. If there are major faults, the cheese has its top layer of rind completely removed to ensure that it cannot be sold in pieces. Instead, it will be used in cartons of grated Parmesan or made into cheese spread!
Since the Second World War the number of dairies that produce Parmesan has steadily dropped from 2356 in 1945 to just 550 today as cheese making has become increasingly concentrated in cooperatives. Until 1984 Parmesan could only be made during the cow’s normal lactation period, in the warm months when they ate fresh green grass after giving birth to young. The smaller amount of winter milk was used to make vernengo, a fresher type of cheese to be sold young and at a lower price.
Artificial insemination, however, has made it possible for milk yields to be kept stable and since 1984 the decision to allow Parmesan to be made year round means that production has peaked and is now fairly stable at approximately 2.9 million wheels a year.
Among these 2.9 million wheels there is a massive range in quality, but the Consorzio itself, with the job of promoting the industry as a whole, is reluctant to advocate one dairy over another. Finding the perfect Parmesan thus involves much driving around the Apennine Mountains, up at the break of dawn, watching the magical process of turning 600lts of milk into a wheel of Parmesan, touring stables, hay barns, dairies and mountain springs. We eat and talk very little else, comparing textures and tastes, colours and smells. The fruits of our labours are currently here in the cheeses we offer from two different dairies: Caseificio Superchina and Azienda Agricola Iris.