Adventure Danger Food & Drink Lifestyle Travel

UMAMI IN MODENA – Parmigiano Reggiano

Wheels of cheese


Parmigiano = of the Parma area

Reggiano = of the Reggio area

The definition of Parmigiano Reggiano:  The legally protected (by both Italian and EU laws)  name of a hard cheese produced in the area of Parma and Reggio, with milk from cows within this legally defined area.

Parmigiano Reggiano’s history can be traced way back to the Middle Ages. It was first produced in the Po Valley by Cistercian monks as large wheels of cheese that could be easily stored but, above all, might help sustain pilgrims on their long journeys.

Nowadays, in order to carry the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) mark, Parmigiano Reggiano must be made in the provinces of Reggio Emilia and Parma, Modena, an area of Bologna on the left bank of the river Reno, or Mantua, on the right bank of the river Po.

There are around 600 caselli, or artisan producers, whose cheeses are all periodically monitored as they mature by the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, the official group responsible for the quality of the production and certification. The wheels are checked by tapping the rind with a special little hammer that can divine any problems from the sound. 

A very short drive from the balsamic vinegar Acetaia found us at the parmesan cheese dairy called ‘4 Madonne Caseificio dell Emilia’, a mid-sized dairy that comprises 2% of all Parmigiano Reggiano production in Italy.

The production Process:

1  Only the milk of Friesian and Reggiana Rossa (red) cows, bred in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua, is used in the production of Parmigiano Reggiano.  These cows must be fed either grass or hay – only.

2  Milk of the previous evening is held in large tanks to allow the cream to separate, resulting in a part skim mixture.  This is combined with the fresh milk each morning, and this mixture is pumped into copper-lined vats.  Starter whey (containing lactic acid bacteria) is added.

Copper vats

3  Calf rennet is added, and this mixture is left to curdle.

4  The curd is then broken up manually into small pieces, approximately the size of the grains of rice.

Making the form

5  The cheese is placed into first plastic, then stainless steel forms, to allow the cheese to retain its wheel shape.  (2 – 3 days)

Steel forms

6  The wheels are then placed into a brine bath, to absorb the salt.  The wheels enjoy the brine bath for anywhere from 20 to 25 days, at a temperature of 16-18 degrees C.

Brine Baths

7  The wheels are then transferred into the aging rooms, where each wheel is manually turned every seven days.  The wheels are aged for up to 30 months.


8  The cheese is tasted by a master grader (from the consortium), who taps each wheel to identify undesirable voids or cracks within the wheel.  Wheels that pass the test are then heat branded on the rind with the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano’s logo.   Each carries an ID code number for the dairy plus month and year of production: the higher numbers signify the more robust cheeses made in the mountains while lower numbers are from valley Caseificio and considered the most prized.

Wheels of cheese

Parmigiano Reggiano aged 18 months is suitable for those who prefer a delicate flavour.  It is a perfect cheese for the table, aperitifs and starters, or to accompany salads and cold dishes.  To exalt its delicate flavour, try pairing it with fresh seasonal fruit. 

Parmigiano Reggiano aged 24 months pairs well grated over most Italian pasta or rice dishes, and is an essential ingredient of stuffed or oven-baked pasta dishes, or in shavings to add a finishing touch of flavour to vegetable or meat-based dishes.  It is also perfect as a snack or quick meal combined with fruit or vegetables: a quick boost of energy and flavour in a healthy and easy to digest form.

A 26 to 30-month old Parmigiano Reggiano can be used in the kitchen to enhance flavour in the preparation of main courses. It can be served in slivers on meat or fish carpaccios, or on roast beef with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. This long maturation Parmigiano Reggiano can be served with structured red wines.

A sliver of matured Parmigiano Reggiano is sublime if served with a few drops of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena or Reggio Emilia.

Parmigiano Reggiano

9  The matured wheels are then split in half, in readiness for cutting into wedges, and then packaging.

Parmigiano Reggiano

If you are looking to enjoy some real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, please look for the DOP seal, and the authorization from the Consortium – in Italian, on the label.  You will pay a little more to enjoy the sublime taste of the real deal, rather than the cheaper imitators or falsos.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, Modena is home to Massimo Bottura, and his 3 Michelin starred Osteria Francescana.

Osteria Francescana

One of his signature dishes at the Osteria is Five ages and temperatures of Parmigiano Reggiano, which celebrates Parmigiano Reggiano in all of its possible incarnations and ages.

5 ages of parmesan

An ethereal demi-soufflé is made with 36-month Hombre Bio Parmigiano Reggiano from Modena, a siphoned foam is comprised of 30-month Rosola, the liquid cream is of 36-month Rosola, a crisp 40-month Morello di Mezzo, Soliera-aged parmigiano Reggiano is the wafer, and the quintessence of Parmesan, “a breath of air” is derived from a broth of Parmigiano aged 50 months.  My Kingdom for a chance to taste that dish…..  !

In May 2012 , two major earthquakes struck Northern Italy, causing 27 deaths and widespread damage.  In Italy they became known as the 2012 Emilia earthquakes.

Some images of the destruction include this…

City hall in Sant Agostino

…and this…

Collapsed clock tower

…and this.

Destroyed wheels of cheese

The earthquakes sent hundreds of thousands of Parmesan wheels – weighing 35 to 40kg, and worth upwards of £350 each – crashing to the ground from the high shelves where they were stored and aged for a year or more in humidity-controlled warehouses.

Damaged wheels

Estimates suggest that more than £100m worth of cheeses were destroyed, a third of the annual production.

Parmesan salvage effort

The impact on the Modena area economy was profound.  Several interesting solutions were sought out and created in an attempt to a) aid the cheese producers to rebuild their warehouses and operations and b) salvage some of the damaged wheels of cheese and utilize them in some meaningful way.


Saving parmesan

A) The solution to aiding the cheese producers:  Wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano are rated so highly that banks allowed Parmigiano producers to use them as surety guarantees for bank loans to help their cash flow whilst the cheese matured…!  The ‘Parmigiano Reggiano as loan collateral program’ was a huge boost to the local cheese producers.  In fact, to this day, many banks still accept interest payments in Parmigiano cheese.  (Shortly after the earthquakes, the owner of Caseificio 4 Madonne shared that a Modenese bank offered him its vaults for storage of his cheese, because his warehouses were so badly damaged.)

B) The solution to using up (and thus selling) damaged wheels of Parmigiano was this…Massimo Bottura’s dish called ‘Risotto Cacio e Pepe’.  Chef Bottura was chosen to create a recipe for the world’s largest virtual Italian dinner.  This recipe was his menu for the virtual dinner.  Those participating in this virtual Italian dinner proceeded to purchase all 1,000 of the damaged wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano, thereby helping to save the dairies in the affected area

Risotto caci e pepe

The traditional dish is called Roman Cacio e pepe pasta.  (The recipe for the traditional dish can be found here:

This dish, Cheese and Pepper in English, is comprised simply of spaghetti, olive oil, butter, black pepper, and grated Pecorino Romano cheese. 

Chef Bottura altered this traditional recipe by swapping out the pasta in favour of local rice, and utilized Parmigiano Reggiano instead of the Pecorino Romano.

To find Bottura’s recipe, click here:

In his own words: “I made it as a social gesture,” he told us, “something that featured the flavors of the region affected by the earthquake, including rice, as well as some of the nearly 1,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano that were damaged—we wanted to create a dish that would utilize them.” To do so, Bottura simmered shredded Parmigiano in water, creating what he referred to as a dashi. “After we turned the heat off, we stirred it until it was creamy, and left it in the fridge overnight. When we woke up the next day, the liquid had separated into three parts: there were protein solids on the bottom, a thick broth in the middle, and a Parmigiano cream on top. We toasted some rice, sourced from the many small villages in the area affected by the earthquake. Then we started adding the broth until the rice basically became pure Parmigiano, and finished it with the cream of parmesan.” The result is a simple but sumptuous dish, which, as Bottura put it, “borrowed an iconic Roman spaghetti dish…and transformed it into an Emilian symbol of hope and recovery by using Parmigiano instead of pecorino, and rice instead of pasta—it was the beginning of our revolution with risotto.”

My travels to the Modena have given me a heartfelt appreciation of the commitment to tradition, quality and passion of the balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano Reggiano producers.  To celebrate their commitment to excellence, all I have to do is enjoy their food!  Do yourself a favour – get to Modena, and enjoy it for yourself!

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