There Is Parmigiano Reggiano, and Then There Is Parmigiano Reggiano

From my tiny spot here up north I observe that Norwegians, together with the rest of the world, probably, have taken Parmigiano Reggiano to heart. Aka Parmesan, a French name by the way. We cannot have enough of it. Personally I am more in favour of the Swiss Sbrinz, but it is made only in minute quantities, most of which is consumed domestically. The small part being exported, goes to Italy, of course. I think most of us are approaching the way Italians make use of the cheese, for everyday use. Most Italians though, have some finer versions for festive use, such as Sundays. We mostly don’t. The reason for that is probably ignorance and availability.

I like being precise; so there is Parmigiano Reggiano, and then there is Parmigiano Reggiano. What’s the difference?

What’s all this with Parmigiano Reggiano?

Depends on your perspective of course and how concerned you are with authenticity. This cheese has become a, volume wise, huge cheese, sold all over the world. That naturally also introduces a few challenges. The artisan cheese that it once was, all the way back when it started, you have to look carefully to find. Most of today’s cheese come from big dairies. Does not have to be anything wrong with that, though. But, it seems to be the rule that the bigger the players, the more they want it their way, spending huge resources changing the rules in their favour. Enough to mention Camembert. But this has also happened to Parmigiano Reggiano, long before the Camembert issue. According to what was said during a tasting at Cheese 2017, there is allowed to use quite a few additives in making the cheese, allowed because the big actors find it useful, not allowed earlier and not applied by the small dairies. But that is not my concern with this post. I want to talk about milk. A rather important factor when it comes to cheese making. Hard to make good cheese from bad milk, but of course quite possible to make bad cheese from good milk. There is a lot of different breeds out there, and all of them with their own individuality. Of course. Some of them provide milk very suitable for making cheese while others are not necessarily in the same league.

Vacca Bianca Modenese og Vacca Rosso

Earlier, Parmesan was made with milk from these two breeds. I am not saying originally, because it is a cheese with a long history, but there are mentions of Vacca Rosso as far back as around year 1000. Benedictine monks were using milk from this breed to make Parmigiano Reggiano. The white appeared later, I think, through cross breeding; Vacca Rosso and Grey Podolico (Grigi di tipo Podolico).

At least that seems to be the opinion. As a matter of fact, these two breeds were very well suited for providing milk for the Parmigiano Reggiano making, and cheese in general for that sake. That has to do with the Protein/Fat ratio, which is important when it comes to cheesemaking and which milk is best suited for making which cheese. For these two breeds the content of kappa proteins in their milk is specially high, according to Slow Food. Which is a good thing. And? To-day there are only relatively small herds left of these two breeds. But they, or some, are working hard on increasing them. Milk from these two breeds are not blended to make cheese, it is either or. So you have Vacca Bianco Mondenese Parmigiano Reggiano from the Modena area and Vacca Rosso Parmigiano Reggiano from the Reggio-Emilia area.

So what is the problem?

Huge demand attracts big participants demanding lots of milk to run their operations. The Vacca Bianca Modenese and Vacca Rosso are too few and the output from each of them is far too low for the big players. So they have pushed the introduction of Holtein-Friesians. It has a huge output. Most breeds have an annual maximum, if you feed them more believing you can get more milk from them, you’re wrong. They only get fat from this excess feeding. Not so with the Holstein-Friesians. The more you feed them the more milk you get. In return you get what is commonly called “white water”. It is generally accepted the milk quality from Holstein-Friesians is poorer than from other breeds. That does not stop a lot from using milk from this Dutch breed in cheese making, even though it is better suited for consumption milk. The Holstein-Friesian is like a machine.

Suboptimal milk

From this we can learn that most of the Parmigiano Reggiano we consume comes from suboptimal milk, carefully put. It’s all about “milking the market”. That is of course a familiar driving force. It brings us back to Parmigiano Reggiano as an everyday cheese, though, good for grating. The cheese for those special occasions comes from Vacca Bianca Modenese and Vacca Rosso. They are rather rare, but probably easier to get hold of the Vacca Rosso cheese. If the milk comes from any of the two breeds, it is on the label, fear not. That’s how exclusive it is.

So while most of us are only concerned with the age of the Parmigiano Reggiano we eat, we should be more concerned with what type of milk it is made from.

Vacca Bianco Modenese

Apart from excellent milk this breed also provide extraordinary beef. Besides, in earlier times it was a very useful animal in the fields. So if you are offered beef from the Vacca Bianco Modenese, do not hesitate. In the meantime I recommend you go looking for the real Parmigiano Reggiano.