ON THE PLATE: Forgive me if this column gets a bit cheesy
What’s in a name? For some time now only the product actually produced in a specific region can correctly, even legally, be given a particular moniker.
Example – champagne is an easy one, for no longer are Australian, or indeed any other vignerons who make a sparkling wine allowed to call it champagne. It can only be labeled ‘champagne’ if it is produced in the Champagne district of France.
Similarly, with the cheese we often refer to as parmesan. This is actually the French word for Parmigiano reggiano.
Parmesan is often the word used for cheese that imitates parmigiano reggiano. Then there is Grana Padano – reggiano’s poorer cousin?
Indeed, you’ll find that grana padano is generally less expensive that parmigiano reggiano – the king of Italian hard cheese. There is a very good reason for this. The milk used to make reggiano must be from cows fed on grass and hay only, and from that day’s milking only.
During the cheese making process, it is put into a stainless-steel drum-shaped ‘form’, pulled tight with a buckle to create a wheel shape. A plastic ‘belt’ imprints the Parmigiano Reggiano name, date, cheese factory number into the rind of the cheese before it is placed in a brine bath. You will see this distinctive imprint when you buy true parmigiano reggiano.
The name is trademarked and exclusive legal control over production, quality, ageing and sales is the domain of the Consorzio – a profession created by government decree.
Every single wheel of parmigiano reggiano must meet strict criteria, and is tested every day during the ageing process by the consorzio using a hammer to tap the cheese, listening carefully for sounds that will identify to him any undesirable, unseen cracks. If passed they are heat branded by the consorzio with his particular registration, or if deemed unsatisfactory, are marked or scored on the rind with slashes to indicate they are of a lesser quality.
Grana Padano differs in that milk from cows that have been fed silage, with perhaps slightly less fat content and indeed milk from several days’ milking, with no organic certification can be used to make the cheese. It is aged for up to 20 months whereas parmigiano reggiano must be aged on average for 2 years.
So back to our word play. Parmigiano is the Italian adjective for Parma. Reggiano is the Italian adjective for Reggio Emilia
– these are two of the districts in Italy where the cheese is made.
Parmesan is actually the French name for it, and the name parmesan is also used for cheeses which imitate parmigiano reggiano.
Parmigiano reggiano is used of course to garnish pasta dishes, soups, risottos, can be finely grated and mixed with breadcrumbs and chopped parsley to coat foods.
Grana padano will do just as well. However, parmigiano reggiano is a very fine cheese to add to include on a cheese platter to complete a meal. I like to make these shards by grating the cheese using two grades of grater – fine and coarse. Simply shape a thin layer of grated parmigiano reggiano onto baking paper or a silicone baking mat into small triangles, and bake in a moderately hot oven until the cheese just begins to blister, melt and turn slightly golden – approx 3-4 minutes. Use them as garnish on a rocket and pear salad, or on a hearty soup. In a salad they provide a nice ‘crunch’ texture and a bit of glam to impress your diners!