From January 2003 consumers will be able to see the effects of the new Parmigiano-Reggiano branding regulations. Over the last few days, in fact, the wheels produced in January 2002, the first to conclude the minimum twelve-month aging period, have begun to be marketed.
These days a quality product standout for the attention it attaches to such factors as consumer information, transparent labelling, and production traceability—all veritable plus marks when it comes to marketing. Parmigiano-Reggiano is exemplary in this respect.
The making of the cheese probably dates back to around the fourteenth century, when the technique was developed by Benedictine and Cistercian monks who settled in the Po valley. It sprang from the need to preserve large quantities of milk in the form of large cheeses that were durable and suitable for long-distance transport. Before the advent of modern refrigeration techniques, the possibility for conservation was directly proportional to the high quality of the raw materials used and the development of a simple but effective processing technique. The cheese that bears the Parmigiano-Reggiano denomination today is still largely made according to the old procedures, with modern technology being introduced solely to elevate standards of quality.
Parmigiano–Reggiano is made exclusively of raw milk the bacteria in which mean that it is a ‘living product’ that changes in the course of time. If the quality of the milk is anything other than excellent, this jeopardizes the cheese-making process right from the earliest stages. Hence the need to control the forage used to feed the cattle. The milk from each farm (about 7,000 farms serve 563 small dairies) is processed in separate cauldrons; in this way there can be no doubts about the origin of the ‘raw material’ used for each wheel of cheese.
When they are just a few hours old the wheels are placed in fascere or molds, which impress the familiar dotted Parmigiano–Reggiano logo onto the outside surface. A casein patch marked with the identification code of the casello, or dairy, is then amalgamated to the still soft rind to ensure total traceability. In January 2002, the meeting of the delegates of the Consorzio di Tutela del Parmigiano–Reggiano, or Protection Consortium, introduced a number of new rules to the branding system, the effects of which are now beginning to be seen.
After aging of at least twelve months, a thorough test—known as espertizzazione and based on the beating and cutting of at least one wheel production fraction—allows the Protection Consortium’s technicians to identify any flaws. The cheese is then broken down into three categories: cheese that fails to pass the selection procedure, cheese ready for sold and cheese suitable for long aging (at least 24 months). For the consumer it is essential at this point to be able to easily recognise the various typologies, which are obviously matched by considerable differences in price. The ‘failed’ wheels are ‘bleached’—ie, the dotted logo is removed from the crust—so as to leave no room for doubt: this cheese is definitely not Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Only the approved cheese is branded with the oval bearing the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio di Tutela” plus the year of production.
The rind of Parmigiano-Reggiano ripened for over 24 months—the aroma of which is absolutely outstanding—thus bears the dotted logo, the registration number of the dairy, the month and year of production and the oval brand.
To allow for easy identification of wheels marketed after just 12 months’ aging, the above elements are supplemented by an indelible line of parallel grooves. If the product reaches counters already vacuum-packed, it bears the words “Prima Stagionatura”, or Minimum Aging, on a green band alongside the customary Consortium logo.
This flagship Italian product, which boasts a total output of 2,100,000 wheels a year, thus ensures total consumer transparency and traceability. The implementation of this policy may also be the result of the damage caused, especially abroad, by competition from cheeses with denominations similar to that of Parmigiano-Reggiano, damage the breeders and dairymen of Emilia economically. At any rate here we have an example of how the interests of the quality producer and those of the consumer can coincide.
Paola Nano works at the Slow Food Press Office.
Adapted by John Irving