You already know that I love cheese, but as of April, it got a little bit more serious.
My cousin and I took a trip to the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy, which is the land of Lambrusco wine, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, mortadella, bolognese sauce, and Parmigiano-Reggiano to name a few.
As the geek that I am, I made sure to include a tour of a Parmigiano cheese factory. And no, they did not pay me to share the link, but that’s how good it was. It was so cool! So much so, that I’m still nibbling on the cheese I brought home with me, as I type this up. Don’t worry I stocked up.
First and foremost, it’s not called parmesan, and only cheese produced from the makers within the region approved by the consortium, can be called Parmigiano-Reggiano. They are all made under strict guidelines, inspected and stamped. It must be DOP approved, which means protected designation of origin.
Now enough with the lesson.
We got to see the milk boil, thicken, cut, shaped and packed into rolls. So geeky yet so fun to watch! Also, I now understand why there is writing on the rind. They use a rubber film, imprinted with the name and the DOP license number to show that it’s authentic.
My favorite was seeing the salting process. They literally put the rolls in a bath of salt water for dayssssssss. I had the chance to taste the water it was bathing in, and it was salty enough to give me high blood pressure on the spot. But that’s ok, that’s what makes it taste so good.
Next, we got to visit the room where the aging takes place, and there was more cheese in the room than people. And you know how I feel about being overwhelmed by food? I was smiling from ear to ear! Maybe that’s how shopaholics feel when they are overwhelmed by clothes at their favorite stores? I wouldn’t know.
The tour got more real when we had the chance to go to the stables, and meet the cows who produced the milk. It doesn’t get more farm to table than that. It also made me happy that the cows and their young were being treated well, fed natural grass, and allowed to go running in the field after.
At the end of the tour, I was able to purchase a few chunks to take home for family and friends. Although, I ran through my 48 month aged piece in 2 weeks, and currently snacking on the 24 month aged cheese I got my grandmother
And the highlight of the trip, was visiting Osteria Francescana by Massimo Bottura in Modena. His restaurant is rated #2 in the world, and I totally understand why. It’s based in a region with amazing ingredients, and they aren’t afraid to use them in a creative way.
My favorite memory was a dish strictly made of Parmigiano called “Five ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano in different textures and temperatures”, where all of my senses were engaged.
The plate began with a creamy sauce of Parmigiano, which I seriously wanted to lick off, as well as two soft textured cheeses similar to a ricotta, one very close to a souffle. It’s wrong of me to use the word ricotta, but I am trying to give you some imagery here, so bare with me. Next there was a foam like texture, and the final piece was a galette or crunchy cracker, as the cherry on top.
Side step- the galette would make for a great snack when I’m crashing at 3pm at work.
Each of these five stages was made of pure cheese, of different ages, and the dish was by far my favorite at Francesca. Totally worth the 4am wake up call, several months in advance, for the reservation alone. It also helped that we had passed Cheese 101 only a day before, to give a shit about the complexity of the dish.
The entire experience at Francescana was too good to be true, and more to come on that later.
Now that I’m back home, I made cacio e pepe pasta with plain elbow macaroni, with a generous portion of the 48 month aged Parmigiano. It was so good, that I scraped the pan, and licked the leftover cheese on the spoon I cooked it with. We also made mac and cheese, and it was so much better than usual!
I have realized that Parmigiano-Reggiano is officially my magic potion. Though realistically it could also be nostalgia after eating it everyday for a week back in April. I have to check myself sometimes, sorry.
I promise however, that it was very very good.
But the moral of the story is that, we tend to undervalue Parmigiano and have been seriously missing out. Next time you go to pick up cheese at the store, don’t be afraid to pick up Parmigiano-Reggiano and eat it alone, or with crackers. It doesn’t have to be something to top your pasta with, as long as it’s the real DOP deal.
But also, don’t buy cheese which is just called “parmesan” because that means it’s not as good and that you’re honestly selling yourself short. And we are not in the business of living a partly fulfilling life! Even worst, never buy boxed cheese from the counter, to top your pasta with because let’s face it, it’s not even cheese.
The experience opened up my eyes to the value of cheese, to the importance of proper sourcing, and to the endless possibilities in transforming cheese. It made me fall in love with cheese all over again.