I grew up consuming Parmesan that came out of a green shaker. It was grated, it was white, and it went on top of spaghetti, lasagna, manicotti, cannelloni, and pizza.
As a child, I was fearful of tomato-based foods. (I have no idea why; I just knew mom was trying to poison me every time the gross red stuff showed up on the table.) Luckily, there was Parmesan to mask as much of the tomato flavor as possible.
When I was a little older, I was introduced to shredded Pecorino Romano (or just “Romano,” as I knew it). I referred to this as “stinky feet cheese” and didn’t particularly care for it. I had no idea why my parents had brought it into our house, and we couldn’t get rid of it fast enough.
Finally, by the time I was a master’s student living in my own apartment in Tucson, I was keeping blocks of Parmesan in the fridge to grate as needed. But even then I didn’t truly realize—or recognize—the difference between the “parmesan” with which I had grown up and the Parmigiano I was doling out on my home cooking.
In fact, most cheese customers don’t really know there is a difference, other than that the cheesemonger is using a fancy Italian word to point out the parmesan.
Over a year ago, I wrote a post about the differences between Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano. These two cheese shop staples look the same and are frequently merchandised together, but the Grana is much cheaper than the Reggiano. The difference between them is easy enough to explain in the context of two different Italian cheeses that rather resemble one another, but are not the same.
But what differentiates those two from the American staple “Parmesan?”
Like the case of Parmigiano Reggiano v. Grana Padano, it starts with a place, a recipe, and a name.
According to The Oxford Companion to Cheese, the name “Parmesan” comes to us from the French: “rather a French contraction of ‘Parmesano.’”1
Basically, the French were importing grana-style cheeses from Italy by the Renaissance. At that time, you had the cheese from Parma (Parmigiano), and you had the cheese from Reggio Emilia (Reggiano). By contracting the words Parma-Reggiano together, the French gave us Parmesano, and later Parmesan.
But wait: what’s a grana-style cheese?
Grana is Italian for “grain,” and in this case, it refers to the cheesemaking process.
When Reggiano is being made, the whey is drained off and the curds are cut into tiny, rice-sized pieces. These “grains” are then cooked, pressed together in big, steel molds and aged into the hard, grating-style cheese loved the world over. When you crack a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano in the traditional way (rather than sawing it open), the cheese fractures so that it displays the grainy consistency that is created by pressing all those little curds together.
In the 1930s, the Italians created a consortium to regulate the production of grana-style cheeses. The Consorzio del Grana Tipico was essentially a watchdog for a whole category of cheeses, and it eventually narrowed its focus and became the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano—a regulatory body for cheeses made in Parma and Reggio Emilia.2 When this consortium was founded in 1954, the cheese formally took the name Parmigiano Reggiano.
People have been using the contraction Parmesan to describe that cheese for hundreds of years. In 2008, the European Union granted a protected designation of origin (PDO) to the name “Parmesan,” meaning that within the boundaries of Europe, a cheese can only be named “Parmesan” if it is real Parmigiano Reggiano made in Italy.3
Following this ruling, cheeses had to change their names; for example, Kraft was selling a parmesan in Europe and had to change the name to Pamesello because it did not meet Italian or European guidelines for the name.
It is worth pointing out that the EU was underscoring the Italian government’s interests by protecting Parmesan. Since 1955, the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano had been in charge of regulating the cheese’s DOP, or Denominazione di Origine Protetta (denomination of protected origin).
In other words, the name “Parmigiano Reggiano” (and in Europe, “Parmesan”) is protected by the government. That means a cheese can only be given the name Parmigiano Reggiano if it meets the following criteria:
- The cheese can only be made in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua, and Bologna—with milk that is produced in those provinces;
- The cows producing that milk may not eat silage or other fermented feeds;
- The milk comes from an evening and a morning milking; the evening milk is naturally skimmed, and the morning milk is whole—meaning that the cheese is made from part-skim milk;
- The cheese must be made from raw cow’s milk, coagulated with calf rennet, and may have no additives or chemicals incorporated into it other than salt;
- After the whey is drained off, the curds are cut into tiny “granules” with a tool called a spino;
- The curds are then cooked at 131 degrees Fahrenheit—so Parmigiano Reggiano may be categorized as a cooked-curd cheese like Emmentaler;
- The curds are pressed in a mold, branded with identity markers (for the individual cheese wheel, the month and year of production, the dairy that made it, the quality level, etc.);
- After a few days of resting, the young cheese soaks in a brine bath for a couple of days; the salinity of the brine must be near to that of the Mediterranean sea;
- The cheese is aged on wooden boards for a minimum of 12 months;
- The Consorzio tests every cheese for quality and categorizes the wheels for further aging or for processing;
- Cheeses that don’t meet quality standards are branded as such and may be processed or labeled as generic grana or parmesan, and they don’t get to carry the name Parmigiano Reggiano.
So what if I’m in Wisconsin making a cheese with the same recipe, but with milk from my Wisconsinite cows? Since Wisconsin is not part of the EU, it is OK to call that cheese “Parmesan,” however The US does have guidelines for what constitutes “Parmesan” cheese.
American “Parmesan” must be made from cow’s milk, age for a minimum of 10 months, be made up of no more than 32 percent water, and contain no less than 32 percent milkfat. The milk can be bleached, and Vitamin A can be added after bleaching; antifungal chemicals may also be used on the outside of the cheese.4 In a grated form, American Parmesan can cellulose to prevent the cheese from caking together.
There have actually been lawsuits against American producers making cheese and calling it Parmesan without following those guidelines. Judges have also upheld producers’ right to include wood pulp (cellulose) in Parmesan and still call it “100 percent grated Parmesan cheese.”5
So American Parmesan and Italian Parmesan can actually be pretty different.
Certainly, an artisanal producer with the means to follow the Italian recipe and age the cheese for a long period of time can create a cheese very like unto the original, with an American terroir. But most of the commodity Parmesan made in the US is not going to be comparable.
Parmigiano Reggiano is commonly referred to as “the king of cheese.” It is highly regarded for its umami flavor profile, with a distinct nuttiness and sweetness. And while it’s often much more expensive than domestic Parmesans, it is every bit worth the price—if only for a taste of terroir and nine centuries’ worth of perfection in cheesemaking.
That doesn’t mean that domestic Parmesans can’t be good, or that there aren’t good grana-style cheeses that aren’t name-protected.
It is absolutely OK to compromise and go for a cheaper Parmesan, especially if you’re on a budget or if you’re feeding a ton of people a lot of grated or shredded cheese. After all, not all occasions are fit for a king.
- Gibbons, David. “Parmigiano Reggiano.” The Oxford Companion to Cheese. Catherine Donnelly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 538-41. Print.
- , 539.
- “EU Court Says Parmesan Cheese Must Come from Italy.” Deutsche Welle, 27 Feb. 2008, <http://www.dw.com/en/eu-court-says-parmesan-cheese-must-come-from-italy/a-3152168>. Accessed 26 Mar. 2018.
- Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services. “§ 133.165 Parmesan and Reggiano cheese.” Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 21 – Food and Drugs, Chapter 1 – FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION, DEPARTMENT OF HEATLH AND HUMAN SERVICES (CONTINUED) (PARTS 1-1299), Part 133 – CHEESES AND RELATED CHEESE PRODUCTS. Washington: Government Publishing Office, 2006. 338-39. Web. <https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2006-title21-vol2/pdf/CFR-2006-title21-vol2-sec133-165.pdf>. Accessed 26 Mar. 2018.
- Bellon, Tina. “U.S. judge tosses lawsuits about labels on Parmesan cheese.” Reuters, 24 Aug. 2017, <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kraft-heinz-lawsuit-cheese/u-s-judge-tosses-lawsuits-about-labels-on-parmesan-cheese-idUSKCN1B429G>. Accessed 26 Mar. 2018.