December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The perfect cheese

By |2018-03-21T18:19:25+01:00June 1st, 2005|Food & Wine Archive|
A cheese you have to love.

once tried to write a love poem that compared my passion about a certain brown-eyed girl back home in Florida with my love for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Things didn’t work out with the girl, of course. And the poem — I painfully recall rhyming “Parmesan” with “magic wand” — has been thankfully relegated to the trash heap. But my love affair with what I think is Italy’s greatest cheese has only grown stronger over the years.

Heck, I’ve been known to decide how much I like dinner companions based in part on how much they adore the sweet, nutty, buttery and sexy flavor of Parmigiano. And hardly a meal goes by without my remembering the words of a wrinkled old restaurant owner near Bologna, who told me years ago: “If you don’t love Parmigiano, you might as well give up.”

He was talking about giving up on Italian food, I think, and not just because Parmigiano appears in so many wonderful dishes (it is a key ingredient in dozens of them: grated on pasta, spread over carpaccio, folded into risotto, and the center piece of any great cheese plate). But what makes Parmigiano great is what makes Italian food great: a kind of simple complexity that almost defies explanation.

But I’ll try to explain anyway.

There are specific rules regarding how Parmigiano can be made. Cows whose milk is used for the cheese are carefully selected and can only eat natural ingredients. Partially skimmed milk from one evening is mixed with the whole milk from the following morning, cooked and placed in molds that include perforations that create the familiar “Parmigiano-Reggiano” lettering in the surface of the cheese. The skin turns a mustard color as the cheese ages for a few weeks in salted water and special aging rooms. The process takes around two years, sometimes more.

But despite these tightly-enforced guidelines, the final product can show subtle variations in color, aroma, texture and taste. Parmigiano made with spring milk has a lighter taste, and sometimes a subtle wildflower fragrance and a hint of cloves on the palate; cheese made from autumn milk is more luxurious and creamy tasting. Some people like the cheese young, some age it in underground cellars like fine wine.

Speaking of wine, Parmigiano is an ideal match for almost any bottle you’ve got. I’ve enjoyed Parmigiano with the whole array of companions: from the delicate bubbles of spumante to the rich complexity of a hearty and heady Amarone, from the mouth-watering dryness of Sauvignon Blanc to a passito’s syrupy sweetness.

And because Parmigiano finds its way into so many dishes (the ones I listed above are just a start) it can add flexibility in pairing foods with wine. Parmigiano is generally not a good mix for fish dishes, but for most other foods, add just a little and a whole new universe of beverages will get along nicely with your dinner.

There are many imitators that use a word similar to “Parmesan” in their names, but the real thing comes from the rolling hills northwest of Bologna in the areas around Parma and Reggio Emilia, the two towns that give the cheese its name (though colloquially, the word “Reggiano” is usually dropped). The region boasts almost 700 small Parmigiano cheese makers, whose work is monitored by a consortium. It’s always a telling and picturesque moment when inspectors come around about a year into the aging process, armed with miniature bronze hammers they use to tap on the hull of the cheese wheels. About one in five produce hollow or sloshing sounds — evidence of a bacterial flaw — and are rejected.

Chunks of Parmigiano are usually ragged and of inconsistent size because of the traditional way of breaking the cheese up: A short spade-shaped cheese knife is lightly hammered into the rind in intersecting patterns. Soon, the cheese breaks along natural veins that form in its crystalline structure.

Once the cheese is in chunks, it won’t get any better in the refrigerator. I only buy as much as I can use within two or three weeks, and I keep what I have wrapped in cloth in the dampest part of the refrigerator (usually the vegetable drawer). Grate it or break it into smaller pieces only as you need it: The cheese retains more of its nutty and creamy flavor in block form.

When nobody’s looking, pull out your Parmigiano and try one of the most simple and decadent treats I know. Dip the corner of a bite-sized nugget of cheese into a small cup of balsamic vinegar. The mix of the creamy and the sour is proof of poetry.

About the Author:

Eric J. Lyman's monthly "Pane al Vino" essay appeared from 2004 through 2006.