It’s 5 a.m. on a balmy summer day as we continue our Italian road trip north, leaving behind the iridescent greens of the Tuscan countryside. My two cousins have fallen asleep in our rented Opel and my only company is the radio—of all the unfortunate things that could occur, Katy Perry’s ‘Con Calma’ remix is topping charts and wrestles with my sanity.
But it’s all okay, because we’re now skipping by Bologna to the town of Parma, about to eat cheese for breakfast. And not just any cheese, but the only true parmesan, Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Just how some pilgrimage to France’s Champagne region for their excellent effervescent wine or to Spain for the delectable acorn-fed jamón ibérico, we’re journeying to the source of a fabled Italian cheese that many people think they’ve tried, but only a few have savoured. Everything from Kraft’s plastic jar of grainy ‘cheese’ to Italy’s own Grana Padano, according to the European Court of Justice, is not technically parmesan. Even though these types of cheese are commonly mislabelled as parmesan outside the confines of Europe, they’re only imposters, cast in the shadow of something far greater.
This holy grail of dairy products dates back to the 13th century, a time when the calloused hands of monks, living a slow Benedictine lifestyle, produced a style of cheese that till this day uses the same three ingredients: raw milk, salt, and rennet. Only in Napoleonic Italy, at the turn of the 19th century, an understanding of bacterial cultures and high-tech innovations (such as mercury thermometers) then revolutionised the process of the cheese many across the world had already come to cherish, be it dusted over pasta or sliced directly from a weighty wheel.
We’re greeted by Cristiana from the Consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a non-profit group representing the cheese producers, tasked with ‘safeguarding the typicality’ of the cheese—the taste and tradition of which, begins with cows. From the feed to milking, everything that ends up in the parmesan cheese is locally produced, with no additives or preservatives. And since these pesky ole mountain cows grazing in the fields we pass require milking twice a day, seven days a week, parmesan cheese is produced year round.
The smell of the air shifts to the twang of fresh curds as we pull up to Caseificio Ugolotti, a small production hub where the milk must travel within two hours of being udderly drained. Considered a small unit, this facility churns out a solid 16 wheels of cheese a day.
Here, we meet the master cheesemaker–il Casaro–and his long-practiced apprentices, who carefully bring last night’s batch of milk into giant metal holding basins. It’s the master cheesemaker that runs this show, and it’s for that reason we stay away from his cheese-focused fervour, and watch (not to see much), while on the microscopic level a war wages on. When whey liquid (a leftover byproduct of straining and curdling milk) and renet (in this case, an enzyme from a calf’s stomachs used to encourage the thickening of curds) are added to the warm baths, as Christiana puts it, “The bad bacteria becomes food for the good ones.”
She also tells us that a main reason for limited Parmigiano-Reggiano production is due to the reliance on these cheesemakers, who dedicate a majority of their years to on-the-job-training. At Caseificio Ugolotti that training lasts for a whopping 15 years. The room is filled with signals and sirens aplenty, but as the master walked among the warming cauldrons he still relies on the touch of his hand. While he darts about inspecting his receptacles, the cheese maker gruffly explains to us the process of souring—the breaking down of compounds—that then kickstarts the curdling process, which, in turn, begins the cooking; the latter stage produces the delicate cheese granules of tried and true Parmigiano-Reggiano.
At this point my attention turns to a strange tension between us and the master cheesemaker, who’s terse words and sulky demeanour became increasingly more apparent. At first, I figure it has to do with the pressures of working back-to-back shifts or our aimless wandering about his dominion during such critical period—the master makes his bonus according to the final quality of the product, even the subtlest changes in time or temperature are the most crucial at this stage. Yet as we travelled downstairs, where the strained granules are placed to rest into a fascera, or mould, our guide suddenly spills into gossip of the trade, in a hushed voice: “The day before yesterday a French company built a warehouse… where a large quantity of Parmigiano-Reggiano is stored and distributed outside of the world.” He elaborates this led consumers to believe that this cheese is also French, a move that was quite alarming to the consortium.
You see, Parmigiano-Reggiano owes its unique taste to the close cooperation between the milk producer and cheese maker. And in this long standing relationship, most of their costs and prices are fixed. But when a disturbance, such as a new entrant, might cause the international price of the cheese to drop, all eyes turn to the consortium and a tad bit of drama can ensue in the town of Parma.
Quite understandably, considering what happened in Sardinia, an Italian island, where Pecorino cheese is produced. When the price of Pecorino dropped earlier this year, milk producers went underpaid and resorted to spilling milk on the streets rather than to sell it for next to nothing. Underlying centuries of meticulous production is a system that strikes a delicate balance between a web of artisans; a network that needs safeguarding by institutions like the consortium to ensure such disruptions don’t destabilise the hard work contributed by the people that make incredible cheese, such as, Parmigiano-Reggiano possible. Just like the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” it seems the same can be said for artisanal Italian cheeses.
As we digest the newfound chattiness of the cheese maker, who seems to have now warmed up to us like the vats of soon-to-be-parmesan we leave behind, the final stage is explained to us. After relaxing in salt brine for twenty days, the cheese wheel starts to build its hard, but edible, rind. This preservation and portability is what gave Parmigiano-Reggiano early success in the historic trades. Of course, it didn’t hurt the cheese was declared downright delicious wherever it went.
Aging golden wheels lined the selves of the last room, forming warm alleyways of splendour. Here the cheese spends the majority of its adult life, maturing for a minimum of 12 to upwards of 24 months. The cheese master returns to monitor the quality over time, but unable to open the rind, he uses a small hammer rhythmically hitting the shell to foretell the future of the cheese: whether it deserves to make the cut as an “export” classification or discarded and sold in scraps. As Christina takes us through the lanes, following the thud of the hammer, we feign understanding of the cheese’s song.
Thankfully our palate is far more in tune to the taste of Parmigiano-Reggiano than our ear for cheese thumping. The younger cheese is soft, with smells of acidity or the farm, and astringent is in the throat; the medium develops crystals, fruit tones, with a velvet buttery taste; and the older, like humans, becomes frail and crumbly, with the smell of pepper and sting of meaty flavours. All three together, accompanied only by the occasional dip in a touch of reduced balsamic, was the best breakfast of our trip.
As we bid our farewells to Christina and hopeful best friend, the master cheesemaker, we, in an undeniably desi fashion, decided to break down some simple math. 600 euros a wheel, 20 wheels a column, with 30 columns a lane, and about 15 lanes. That’s more than five million euros.
And, again, this was a small production house. Leave the casinos aside, think of what Danny could pull off if Parmigiano-Reggiano was the next heist in Ocean’s Fourteen.
Varud Gupta has gone from being an existentially lost soul, to a culinary vagabond/spy in household kitchens, and now author of 'Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan' a cookbook-cum-travel narrative through the faiths and foods of India.