By Riccardo Longo
On February 7th, 2020 United States Congressman Lou Barletta & Italian Parliament Member Amato Berardi held a press conference at Gran Caffe L’Aquila in Philadelphia with the purpose of presenting to the media the potentially devastating effects of the proposed tariffs against a plethora of key Italian food products including olive oil, wine & cheese. Washington had threatened to enact up to 100% tariffs on these Italian products in retaliation for the European Union improperly subsidizing Airbus. Cheeses, including Parmigiano-Reggiano, had already been slapped with a 25% tariff, proving that Washington was serious about enacting larger tariffs. Doing so would double the price of products like Parmigiano-Reggiano, shift the focus of these premium producers away from exporting to the United States, bankrupt many Italian-American importers, and flood the American market with fake “Parmesan” from places like South America, China & elsewhere. Although the proposed tariffs threatened thousands of Italian imports, during the press conference and in later media reports, it was Parmigiano-Reggiano which was mentioned most frequently. This is no coincidence, after all it is the ‘King’ of Cheese. In order to defend the King it is essential to recognize why it is so majestic.
Six Reasons Why Parmigiano-Reggiano Is The King
1) An Unforgettable Sensorial Experience.
When experiencing the aromas & flavors of true D.O.P Parmigiano-Reggiano, our olfactory senses and gustatory receptors are stimulated by the rich decadence of slowly melting granular and crumbly granules that envelop our palate with sharp yet refined complex flavors including buttercream, hay, dried fruit, grass, and nuts balanced with mouthwatering fresh salinity and a multi-layered and highly structured savory umami element. It is an elevated gastronomic experience.
2) Glutamate Decadence. Parmigiano-Reggiano is often used as a classic example of umami because it is naturally full of glutamate. Umami is commonly used
by scientists to denote the fifth type of foundational taste in addition to sweet, salty, bitter & sour. The intense and highly pleasurable taste sensation of umami is derived from glutamate, a rich amino acid that provides Parmigiano-Reggiano with a natural, incredibly rich and savory flavor which leaves you craving more.
3) Historic and Artisanal Production Method. Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced today in the same way it was eight centuries ago, with the same ingredients (milk, salt & natural rennet) and traditional strictly regulated production process. It is produced exclusively from the milk of local cows in approved zones primarily in Parma, Reggio-Emilia & Modena where cattle feed on natural local forage. Each wheel features 550 liters of milk which goes through a laborious process that begins early in the morning with artisans pouring the fresh milk into copper vats, allowing it to naturally coagulate, forming a curd. The curd is then broken down into small granules by the master cheesemaker with a spino tool. The granules are heated at 55 centigrade in a cauldron where they form a solid mass. From there, the cheese finds its final shape when placed in a custom mold. Once it has set it receives a stamp on its rind for traceability and is then immersed in a natural brine. Wheels are then aged a minimum of 12 months at which point they will be quality inspected & certified. Once certified, they continue aging. The most common aging for Parmigiano-Reggiano is 18, 24, & 36 months but they can age much longer if desired.
4) Unique Terroir. Terroir is in its name as Parmigiano-Reggiano literally means “From Parma & Reggio-Emilia.” All milking, cheese-making, and aging must take place within the approved zones. There is magic that happens in this territory as contrasting warm winds from the Adriatic meet cooler winds from the Apennine mountains. The landscape, which transitions from meadows to hills to mountains, is endowed with a rich biodiversity and a nourishing fog. The bountiful soil is further sustained by the Po & Reno rivers. On this glorious backdrop happy cows graze from this rich soil which will later translate to incredible milk to produce spectacular cheese. The cows vary from the Dutch-imported Frisona to the Slow Food Presidium White Modenese cow to the Vacche Rosse red cow of Reggiana who produce the most sought after Parmigiano-Reggiano. The process of producing is always the same but the location, type of cow and season are what provide the different profiles & flavor nuances.
5) Nutrition. To provide an idea of its purity, when I visited, I was told stories of how locals wean their babies on Parmigiano-Reggiano due to its wholesome characteristics; as well as enjoy it through pregnancy. The proteins are easily digestible, even for some who are lactose intolerant. This is due to the fact that although made from milk with lactose, the lactose in the dairy becomes lactic acid as the wheel of cheese matures. Thus, at maturity, there is virtually no lactose remaining. It is also an excellent source of vitamins and minerals including calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus & vitamin A. It has been documented to be effective in counteracting osteoporosis, preventing protein deficiency & maintaining healthy blood pressure.
6) It Cannot Be Duplicated. Due to the combination of terroir, history, artisanal methodology and the passion of its generational producers, this cheese cannot be duplicated anywhere in the world. The branding & traceability on the wheel and the DOP certifications are your guarantee that you are experiencing the real thing.
Education is the Strategic Resource
Although Congressman Barletta & Hon. Berardi’s press conference was a success and a significant factor in stopping additional tariffs, the true battle lies ahead. As lovers of Italian gastronomy, it is our responsibility to educate our friends in the struggle against fake Parmigiano-Reggiano. The word “parmesan” is not regulated in the United States and is often used to produce industrial cheeses with less than natural processes and nowhere near the gastronomic complexity. When shopping at the local market, be sure to purchase cheeses labeled “Parmigiano-Reggiano” with the D.O.P. seal. Remember that anything labeled “parmesan” is an imitation, as there is only one King. Let’s recognize and defend its history & excellence.