The Spice Necklace Blog

Ann's Blog

Toronto, Canada, and Modena, Italy:
October 19, 2012:
Getting to know the king of cheese

When we’re on Receta, I liberally jury-rig “back home” recipes with local ingredients. But there’s one imported item I always have in the boat fridge, and never substitute: real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I start to get nervous when my chunk shrinks to sand-dollar size. No surprise, then, that one of my must-sees during our September trip to Italy was a caseificio (dairy) where the king of cheese is made. Emanuela Grotti, the charming host at Podere Prasiano, the agriturismo near Modena where we stayed for a few days, hooked us up with a small cooperative dairy that has been making Parmigiano Reggiano since 1964.

The trip to Caseificio Santa Rita, a half-hour’s drive from the agriturismo (if you don’t count our missed turn), meant skipping breakfast, a decision not made lightly: Emanuela is a wonderful cook. (Breakfast included her homemade breads, jams, and crostate – fruit tarts; the pasta course at each night’s dinner featured fettucini, or ravioli, or another fresh pasta that she had made from scratch that afternoon.)

Our guide, Cinzia Rosi, with a wheel of Santa Rita
Parmigiano Reggiano that started life in October 1995.
But the morning milk arrived at the dairy by 7, and if we wanted to see the cheese-making process from the beginning, we had to be there.

We were met by Cinzia Rosi: She and her husband are members of the cooperative, and their farm is just a stone’s throw from the dairy. All the milk for Santa Rita’s organic Parmigiano Reggiano comes from farms within a 3 or 4 km radius – less stress on the milk when it doesn’t have to travel far, Cinzia explained, which makes for better cheese. She no doubt got the job of showing us around because she spoke excellent English, but she also knows her cheese – not least because she and her husband own a herd of a declining breed called the vacca bianca modenese, the white cow of Modena. Among other virtues, these cows produce milk that makes excellent Parmigiano Reggiano. After the day’s cheese-making was finished, we swung by the Rosi farm to see them. Munching away on grass, Anna, Maria, and the rest of the girls (they all had names) looked as clean and contented as Elsie the cartoon cow.

Throughout the morning, I was struck by how much care goes into the making of this cheese, to maintain its quality and tradition. I’ll let Steve’s photos tell the story.

Since the milk for the cheese has to be fresh – never refrigerated – the cooperative makes cheese 365 days a year.

The cheesemakers use their fingers to check the formation of the curd.

Here, the cheesemaker uses a tool called a spino to cut the curd into very small pieces. The cauldron contains 1000 litres of steam-heated milk .

After a half-hour cafe break at a bar in the village of Pompeano to allow the curd to settle and coalesce into a mass, the nascent cheese is ready to be gathered in cheesecloth…

…and sliced in two. Each 1000-litre vat of milk yields two wheels of Parmigiano.

The whey that remains in the vat is used to make ricotta or is fed to the local pigs…which makes for great prosciutto.

The cheesecloth-covered balls rest in plastic molds with a weight on top for a day to drain, then…

…surrounded with a plastic collar that imprints the cheese with information about its provenance. As a result, the cooperative knows where the milk for each cheese came from, and when. Then the cheeses are moved to a sea-salt bath – sea salt is a natural preservative – for 18 days.

Then it's off to Santa Rita's aging room, where some 4,000 wheels rest on floor-to-ceiling shelves. The younger cheeses have a lighter, more yellowy colour....

italy_parmigiano_14 they age, they take on a warm brown hue.

By law, Parmigiano Reggiano, must be aged at least 1 year (some, like this one, much longer). After a year, the cheese is inspected by the consortium that regulates its production. Wheels that pass are given a certifying brand.

At the end of our visit, samples of 5 different Parmigiano Reggiano are laid out for us to taste, aged for various lengths of time (one sample, for 118 months), including two made from milk from Cinzia and her husband's Modenese white cows. They were all incredible -- a revelation. But the type we bought was the 36-month-old Parmigiano from Cinzia's cows. Yes, even we could taste the difference.

Back to top

Sign up to be notified by email when I post a new blog

2 comments on “Toronto, Canada, and Modena, Italy:
October 19, 2012:
Getting to know the king of cheese

  1. Sue Grimes on said:

    Hi Ann, Coincidentally we just returned home from a wonderful two week stay in Ravello (including two days on Capri) on the Amalfi Coast with Ray and ChuChu. We actually read your first blog about Italy while we were still there. Lots of wonderful food, including lots of seafood, pastas and amazing pizza – and thankfully lots of stair climbing and wonderful hiking opportunities to balance off the calories. The paths we walked along to reach the other towns, led us by farmers tending their small terraced plots full of olive and lemon trees. In fact, the olive trees also grow wild everywhere. It was chestnut season , with the ensuing Festa della Castagna, – the trees and the ground beneath were full of beautiful chestnuts literally bursting from their casings.
    We rented a very basic apartment with a kitchen, so prepared some of our own meals, including roasting those beautiful chestnuts. Yes, we always had delicious Parmigiano on hand, although I’m not sure of its origin. We love Pecorino Romano, a sheep’s cheese, and was surprised that it just wasn’t anywhere to be found in such a mountainous region where it would be a challenge to raise cows, but where we often saw sheep and goats. Looking forward to more of your Italian discoveries and musings.

  2. How nice to hear from you, Sue. Your trip sounds wonderful — I’d love to explore that part of the country sometime. Did you happen to learn a trick for peeling roasted chestnuts while you were there? I just did a batch here this afternoon (to use in a recipe), and my fingertips are sore from trying to get the blasted shells and skins off.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code

HTML tags are not allowed.