Planning a travel destination based entirely on cheese admittedly seems frivolous. But when the cheese in question is Parmigiano Reggiano, and the region is also the world’s only producer of traditional balsamic vinegar and prosciutto di Parma, the decision actually feels quite justified.
In all seriousness, I’m grateful that my husband and I spent the time in Parma, Italy that we did last summer. There was no way of knowing that just a few short months later, the entire world would be turned upside down. Since most of us aren’t able to travel as we would like, at least for the time being, food and cooking allow us to bring the culture of the world into our own homes.
Our experience in Parma has helped us to do just that.
While there, we soaked up and embraced the Italians’ approach to food and life. We immersed ourselves into the culture of the Parmigiani (loosely pronounced as Parmesans, as the people of Parma refer to themselves), starting with cooking classes in the home of Antonia Greci, our incredibly gracious Airbnb host who also happened to be co-owner of Angel d’Or, one of the top-rated restaurants in Parma.
Antonia shared her home, her family and her spirit with us, emphasizing the importance of slowing down, taking the time to infuse love and care into the food we prepare. She explained that locally-sourced ingredients like Parmigiano Reggiano and traditional Balsamic vinegar are part of the soul of Italian cooking, that there’s really no substitute for the real thing.
We visited production facilities for Parmigiano Reggiano, traditional balsamic vinegar and prosciutto di Parma, meeting experts and producers in each of these fields who graciously shared their rich knowledge.
Simplicity and time
The common theme of each of these traditional foods is patience.
The ingredients are incredibly pure and simple: No thickeners or stabilizers, no artificial colors or flavors, and no chemicals are added to speed production or extend shelf life.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made with only one ingredient – the must, or juice, of freshly-pressed grapes. Prosciutto di Parma is simply salt and pork. Parmigiano Reggiano has just three ingredients: fresh milk, rennet and salt.
The secret ingredient is time: Traditional balsamic vinegar must age for a minimum of 12 years. Prosciutto di Parma is aged for at least 14 months, and up to 36 months. Parmigiano Reggiano, also referred to as the King of Cheese, is aged for 12 months, up to 36 months or longer.
Incorporating these traditional products of Italy into our own cooking immediately steps up our culinary game, giving dishes that authentic touch infused with the heart of Italian cuisine.
Here’s the thing though – we can’t cut corners on these ingredients, or it shows.
if you’ve ever tried to recreate a dish that you had in Italy or elsewhere on your travels and ended up disappointed that it just wasn’t the same, it’s often because we used lesser quality ingredients. It’s not bad, it simply falls flat.
Parmesan, for example, is vastly different from Parmigiano Reggiano. Even the freshly-grated parmesan cheese found in the fancy cheese section doesn’t come close to the rich, bold flavors of Parmigiano Reggiano.
It can be tempting to settle and use parmesan, though, as the price difference can be significant.
So here’s a little experiment for you to try: Buy one of each cheese – Parmesan and Parmigiano Reggiano. Do a taste test, preferably a blind taste test with a friend. The difference will be noticeable; the Parmigiano Reggiano is rich, flavorful, and melts in your mouth, while the Parmesan is less flavorful, with a slightly drier, waxy texture.
The Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium
The difference starts before the cheese is ever made; nothing is compromised.
The production of Parmigiano Reggiano is strictly regulated by a Consortium, a governing body that sets the standards for processing and stamps the finished product with an official seal of approval.
Parmigiano Reggiano can be produced only in the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and specific parts of Bologna and Mantua – and only made with milk from cows that have been born and raised in this region, eating only feed and grasses grown in the region.
The milk is fresh, never pasteurized. Rennet is added to create a cheese that is then shaped into giant wheels, those huge wheels we see in cheese stores. These wheels are then soaked in giant baths of salted water and aged for 12 to 36 months.
The rind, or ‘crust’ of each wheel is stamped with a series of dotted numbers, letters and symbols that include, among other information, the name of the cheese, date of production and the seal of approval from the Consortium.
Younger cheese aged for 12 months is mild and delicate, good for enhancing fresh salads or pairing with sparkling white wine. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese aged for 24 months yields a more savory flavor, and is considered to be just right for grating into traditional Italian dishes. A 36-month cheese has an even stronger flavor with notes of nuttiness and spices that is ideally paired with fresh fruit, honey or a drizzle of traditional balsamic vinegar to savor at the end of a meal.
Naturally lactose- and carb-free
An interesting side note is that Parmigiano Reggiano can generally be well-tolerated by people who are lactose intolerant. Although it takes over 500 liters of milk to make a single wheel of cheese, the extended aging process allows ample time for the beneficial bacteria to essentially ‘digest’ nearly all the lactose for us. As a result, Parmigiano Reggiano has just trace amounts of lactose – less than 0.01 gram per ounce, compared to 12 grams of lactose in a cup of milk. A single ounce of Parmigiano Reggiano also has more calcium than eight ounces of milk, along with 9 grams of protein and zero carbs or sugar.
Finding authentic Parmigiano Reggiano
When shopping for authentic Parmigiano Reggiano, look for the red and yellow DOP seal, which always includes a serial number. DOP signifies Protected Designation of Origin; this seal guarantees that your favorite cheese (or prosciutto di Parma or traditional balsamic vinegar) is produced, processed and packaged according to tradition.
Two insider tips: Buy Parmigiano Reggiano by the block and grate it yourself for the freshest result. And look for it in stores like Costco where it’s about half the price per pound.
Any extra dollars spent will stretch far, however. These authentic, traditional ingredients are much more powerful and flavorful, so smaller amounts can be even more satisfying.
In the words of Antonia Greci, “Food is love. Take the time and make the effort to use quality ingredients to create a dish that is truly special.”
For more on the quintessential foods of Italy, check out my FUELED Wellness + Nutrition podcast here where I’m joined by expert Italian artisans specializing in Parmigiano Reggiano, olive oil and traditional Balsamic vinegar.
Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian + nutrition journalist in New Orleans, and founder of Ochsner’s Eat Fit nonprofit initiative. Tune in to her podcast, FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @MollyKimballRD.