I am basically torn between “educate me and tell me everything about how this is done so I replicate it at home against my better judgement” and “can we please fast forward to the part where I get to put it all in my mouth?”
Alas, we aren’t there yet since raw milk products cannot be consumed before 60 days, so no eating the newly made product. We are at the point where things are taking shape, and so we move along the tour. But seriously, feed me.
As I walk along the hallowed corridors, I still faintly smell the pigs, but do not hear them. I notice the halls are pristine, and are often decorated with posters and maps that celebrate the local area. Occasionally, I will pass an open window, letting in a gentle breeze. I notice that some rooms don’t have any vents or window units, no air or heat. The dairy really lets the environment do the work, and it is pure magic.
While the cheese is taking shape in the mold for 48 hours, still absent the parmigiana part of the process, all the natural lactic bacteria starts to create an unfriendly environment for competing bacteria. This is just natural protection against any potential invaders. It’s like it creates it’s own immune system. In doing so, the acidity is very high, and then the lactose turns to lactic acid, then it becomes lactose free – rendering it free of allergens. Hypo-allergenic cheese. Aside from that, true parmigiana has 30% fat content, and it incredibly rich in nutrients because of the highest quality milk. The calcium content is among the highest in the world of any cheese product and it contains lots of protein. You might even call it a perfect food. If you won’t, I certainly will. And then I will enjoy it in large quantities.
It’s so perfect, in fact, that it is the first sold food given to infants in Italy as recommended by pediatricians. Take that, Gerber.
I am reminded that the cheese is just cheese until it meets the salt. Down another hall and past some offices and behind double doors is where the transformation takes place.
I burst through the doors, and find a huge room with wall to wall vats of cheese wheels, delicately bobbing in salt water pools of flavor. The windows are open here as well, and the smell of the pigs outside wafts in and slaps me in the face. It is briny combined with that of farm animal. After a few minutes, I’ve forgotten all about it.
The glorious wheels sit in a sea salt brine for 18-20 days, completely saturated, and are rotated on a daily basis. I can say with authority that it is strongly advised you do not poke the wheels in the water to watch them bob up and down in their pools of delicious.
This salting is the first agent that forms the rind. The salt hardens the cheese, both inside and out. This process makes the cheese officially Parmigiano and no longer a generic cheese. And now, we wait. It’s going to take one whole year to sit and swim before it is really, truly, officially parmigiano. Fortunately, no one is going to make me wait a year as that would be cruel and unjust.
These pigs that assaulted my nose, by the way, are born and raised on the same dairy land, and they are only allowed to eat the whey left over from the cheese making process. Windows in the facility are all open because the climate is just as crucial in this process as anything else. From local dairy farmers to the cheese makers to the pigs, the whole process is more than local – it’s regulated. It’s clear that it is personal to everyone involved, and there is great respect in the process. Even the pigs are treated with reverie and fed only the best, most pure food, creating a circle of life type of feeling.
The next part of this process is something that my dreams are made of. The wheels are shelved in a giant room with open widows where they rest for a year or more and under go quality checks. A massive library of parmigiano. Shelf after shelf, aisle after aisle of beautiful, aging, parmigiano reggiano, from floor to ceiling.
I separated from my mom and tour guide at this point, and I ran up and down the aisles, running my hands over the wheels, letting the wind catch in between the buttons on my bunny suit. I heard harps play with each step. I paused to take photos with some wheels, others I just caressed with my cheek, leaving me with a shiny, greasy streak across my face. One I tried to wrap my arms around, just to see if I could. I whispered ‘I love you.’ I swear I heard it say it loved me, too.
When I was done being one with the wheels, I resumed learning. I heard something about quality testing and perked up. I was disappointed to discover that meant using a tuning fork type of hammer to determine how far along the cheese was in the aging process. There are expert testers who spend their formative years knocking on wheels and listening for the sound of perfection. And that is how they check – knocking on the cheese allows them to listen to hear how compact the inside is. That determines if it is ready to go. So simple.
Possibly my favorite fact: banks will take the wheels as down payment on a loan and have their own maturing facility. Wish those bank vaults were on the tour.
At the end, amidst facts and figures about cheese making and the pigs and cows that are responsible for the glorious treat, I get to taste the finished product. I get the regular every day cheese, aged about a year, and then I get the fancy, holidays and special occasion cheese, aged 36 months. I heard the harp again. I did a little dance. I cried out to the heavens that this was so good and ohmygoodnessohmygoodness.
But really, I was so tickled to have been allowed in the halls and processing facility, in the heart of Parma. I saw experts who train their whole lives to ensure the perfect product is created. I smelled pigs that are better cared for than I care for myself. And I tasted the final product. Who is luckier than me?