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August 15, 2005

Let's talk about Parmigiano (not Parmesan)


Let's talk about Parmigiano.

Note — I did not say "Parmesan."

I've always been a bit puzzled about why the price of "Parmesan" cheese varies so much, at some stores twice or more the price it sells for at others.

I knew there were different grades of the wonderful cheese, considered by most connoisseurs one of the world's very greatest, but I decided to have my crack research team dig a bit deeper.

They started with this entry from the New Food Lover's Companion, 2nd Ed. (1995), by Sharon Tyler Herbst:

    Parmesan Cheese

    [PAHR-muh-zahn] This hard, dry cheese is made from skimmed or partially skimmed cow's milk.

    It has a hard, pale-golden rind and a straw-colored interior with a rich, sharp flavor.

    There are Parmesan cheeses made in Argentina, Australia and the United States, but none compares with Italy's preeminent Parmigiano-Reggiano, with its granular texture that melts in the mouth.

    Whereas the U.S. renditions are aged 14 months, Parmigiano-Reggianos are more often aged 2 years.

    Those labeled stravecchio have been aged 3 years, while stravecchiones are 4 years old.

    Their complex flavor and extremely granular texture are a result of the long aging.

    The words Parmigiano-Reggiano stenciled on the rind mean that the cheese was produced in the areas of Bologna, Mantua, Modena or Parma (from which the name of this cheese originated).

    Parmesans are primarily used for grating and in Italy are termed grana, meaning "grain" and referring to their granular textures.

    Both domestic and imported Parmesans are available in specialty cheese stores, Italian markets and many supermarkets.



Note that only cheese stamped with the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium's official stamp can be called Parmigiano Reggiano.

Anyone can call their cheese Parmesan but if it's not from Italy, don't bother — Argentine, Australian and American producers will kindly leave now.

First, a very informative post from Delia about her trip to Emilio–Romagna, the home of Parmigiano Reggiano.

She notes that the cheese is the product of some 900 small cheesemakers scattered around the Po Valley.

The milk from their cows is so valuable that not one drop is consumed: the locals import their drinking supply from Bulgaria.

About eight gallons of milk are required to make one pound of cheese.

The consortium of producers was formed in 1934.

The strictly controlled production comes from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua on the right bank of the Po River, and Bologna on the left bank of the Reno as of a 1955 law clearly defining the region's boundaries.

I love that precise delineation of which riverbank is in and which out. But I digress.

Delia notes, among the many fascinating facts in her article, that the diarist Samual Pepys, during the Great Fire of London, thought his Parmigiano Reggiano so precious that he dug a hole and buried it to preserve it from the flames.

Now that's passion.

Parla Italiano?

Then go here.


Well, then.

This is in English and offers more background.

Here is the official website of the consortium.

It is the single best source in the world for information about this exquisite cheese.


But before we go shopping, take a moment to read this article from the October 31, 2004 issue of Wine Spectator magazine by Sam Gugino, one of the magazine's long–time columnists.

He points out that older is not necessarily better when it comes to Parmigiano Reggiano and quotes cheesemonger Luigi DiPalo, owner of DiPalo's Fine Foods, one of New York City's premier cheese shops, who says, "Americans think older is better. It's a snobby thing. The real prime for Parmigiano is two to three years."

Gugino noted that he once tried an 8–year–old Parmigiano but was reminded of a great wine that was "past its prime but still showed interesting qualities."

He also offers the useful tip that every single wheel of Parmigiano has the date it was made stamped on the outside.

I'm gonna check this out next time I'm at Whole Foods.

Gugino writes that many cheese merchants deal only with certain farms that make their own cheese, akin to an estate wine.

Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts gets its Parmigiano solely from the Bonati family in Parma.

Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan sells Parmigiano from the Poggio Castro farm in Modena.

There's more to learn.

Some stores sell their Parmigiano by the season in which it's made.

Fall Parmigianos have the highest butterfat content, making them the richest tasting.

Gee, Joe, that's great, but I'm really getting hungry — where can I get the real thing?

I thought you'd never ask.

It's time to go shopping.

Crack research team: hit the web.


We start with Williams–Sonoma, which offers a 2.5 lb. wedge for $49.50, about $20/lb.

Then there's this site, offering "the best Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy."

The cheese is "aged a minimum of 24 months" and costs $22 a pound.

But almost all Parmigiano Reggiano is aged a minimum of 24 months so what's the big deal?

No, we want something better after all this.

We start to move into more artisanal versions of the cheese forthwith.

For example, Vacche Rosse (Red Cow) Parmigiano (below).


Up until the post World War II era the Reggiana — a cow with a striking red coat — was the main breed of cow in the province of Reggio Emilia.

In recent more recent times it has been largely replaced by higher–yielding black and white cows whose milk has a lower butterfat content and fewer proteins.

However, the Reggiana breed has been reinvigorated in the past few years and now is used for production of small, specially labeled quantities of Vacche Rosse Parmigiano.

The higher butterfat content allows for the production of a cheese that is better suited for a longer period of aging, requiring a minimum of 30 months.

Its taste is said to be richer and texture creamier than most Parmagianos even though this seems counterintuitive since it has been aged longer.

$12.99 for one–half pound here. (Scroll down about two–thirds of the way.)

Note: this website, that of iGourmet.com, is superb: informative, detailed, visually appealing.

I bet they move a lot of cheese.

Finally (hey, I know this is a long post — believe me, I know it's a long post) we get to Zingerman's.

They're offering their single maker Parmigiano from the Poggio Castro farm in Modena for $23 a pound.

An aside regarding Zingerman's: after reading about this legendary food mecca for many years, I finally made it there in the early 90s.

I was less than impressed.

Sort of dumpy inside, chaotic, disorganized, it wasn't at all a pleasant environment.

What was on display didn't look all that great, either in presentation or variety.

I suppose considering the next closest epicurean palace is in Chicago, Zingerman's is an apotheosis of sorts for those in the vicinity but me, I'll take Dean & DeLuca any day of the week if I want wonderful high–end food.

Their Parmigiano is "produced for us by a 100–year–old Reggiano cheesemaker" and costs $42 for a two pound wedge.

They throw in a Parmigiano knife (below) as well.


It's a special knife designed to break the cheese into chunks and nuggets rather than cut it in order to preserve its texture and present as much surface area as possible.

I've had one for many years and like it very much; it has a nice feel in the hand.

You can get one here for $7.99. (Scroll about three–quarters of the way down.)

I've saved the best for last.

For those of you who haven't already abandoned me.

From Formaggio Kitchen, mentioned above in the Wine Spectator article, comes, as heralded, Parmigiano Reggiano Bonati–Riserva Speciale from Parma.

    From the Formaggio Kitchen website:

    We carefully tracked the farms and the seasons of Parmigianos to find the single best, and nothing has surpassed the reggiano produced by the Bonati farms.

    The "riserva special" is the finest parmigiano available in this country.

    We cut the huge wheels with traditional tools.

    Aged 3 years.

$25.95 a pound here. (Scroll about half–way down the page.)

The same store also offers another artisanal Parmigiano: Reggiano Cravero.

"For five generations the Cravero family has been hand-selecting young wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano from the finest farms of Emilia-Romagna and transporting them to their maturation caves in Bra, a mountain village in central Piedmont. An FK Exclusive."

$20.95 a pound here. (Scroll about half–way down the page.)

Formaggio Kitchen has been in Cambridge, Massachusetts for over 20 years.

The store has been named the best cheese shop in Boston by both Bostonian magazine and The Improper Bostonian which, along with the fact that they offer not one but two artisanal Parmigianos, is good enough for me.

I'm ordering from them.

August 15, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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And for anyone interested in doing a comparison taste test with Australian parmesan, don't bother! I was shocked when I moved to Australia just how poor the quality of various foods was. Aussie parmesan is like a slightly dried out, rather tasteless cheddar. Luckily I've found a couple of places that sell the real stuff (almost every supermarket sold it back home in the UK). There is talk of Australia putting in place similar restrictions to those in Europe, i.e. if it ain't from one of those few Italian regions you can't call it Parmesan. However, I'll not be holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

Posted by: Graeme | Aug 17, 2005 12:17:10 AM

You know, I agree with you about Zingerman's! However, I've never shared my opinion before. That would be unthinkable for a Michigander to say that Zingerman's is a claustrophobic mess. Ha!

Posted by: Jenifer | Aug 15, 2005 10:41:07 PM

Formaggio may be, in fact, the best cheese shop in the entire United States. Now you've given me an excuse to go for a little visit. :-)

Posted by: Brian | Aug 15, 2005 6:22:05 PM

This is a fabulous cheese. We brought back several pieces of it from a terrific trip to Italy two years ago and were quite sad when we ran out of our personal cache. It is incomparable... and amazing how much they charge for it here in the states!

Posted by: Kathy | Aug 15, 2005 6:12:22 PM

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