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Perfect Parmigiano-Reggiano

By: Calvin Mayne | VP of Food
On: July 29, 2014

Earlier this summer, eight of us made a trip across the Atlantic to visit some of the food-loving cultures of Europe. One stop was to see our supplier of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, near the town of Modena, in central Italy. It’s one of those days we’ll always remember. We woke up in Lucignano, Tuscany, loaded into a van with our friend Alex, who imports the cheese for us, and headed north winding up through the Tuscan hills on a beautiful sunny day. As we neared Modena we were reminded not only of its charming geography and culture, but also its automotive heritage, getting passed, or should I say smoked, by half a dozen or so Ferraris. Modena is a land of fast cars and big flavors.

One of the things that makes travel in Italy so interesting is the variety you encounter between relatively short distances. Contrast Tuscany, for example, with the area around Modena, a few hours to the north. Tuscany has hot, dry summers suited to the production of wine, olive oil, and sheep’s milk cheese. As Jerry Post pointed out his in last month’s DLM Market Report, we ate our way through Tuscany enjoying sheep’s milk “pecorino” cheeses and mounds of Pici pasta with a wild boar ragù. Yet go up to Modena and you discover another distinct world of food including the area’s famous balsamic vinegar and Prosciutto di Parma ham. Next door is Bologna with its mortadella, filled pastas, and lasagna. And the cheese? In nearly every corner shop, market, and restaurant, you see majestic straw colored wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Its romantic sounding name can be difficult for our American tongue. Maybe that’s why we often use the easier-to-pronounce French version of the name, “Parmesan” or simply “Parm.” However, Parmigiano-Reggiano is perfectly sensible to an Italian, and not all that romantic really. It’s simply named after two of the provinces, Parma and Reggio Emilia, where the cheese is produced. The region of production also includes parts of Modena, Mantova, and Bologna.

For nearly a decade now, we’ve been buying Parmigiano-Reggiano from the same family, brothers Valerio and Giovanni Minelli, and Giovanni’s son Carlo. While Parmigiano-Reggiano is, by Italian law, a strictly defined and protected food, made with local cow’s milk, formed in distinctive wheels that weigh some 80 pounds, aged at least one year, etc, we have found differences in the quality and flavor from different producers. As is our custom, we sought out the very best we could find. Once we tasted the Minelli’s cheese some ten years ago, we never looked back. It would be much easier to do as most retailers do and buy whatever Parm is on the market. But we are picky. We go to the extra trouble to buy from our friends the Minellis because, one, we like them and two, we like their cheese the best.

As Giovanni and Carlo showed us their operation, Giovanni said something I’ve never heard before from a farmer. We were visiting the barns where the cows were contentedly eating green fragrant hay, and Giovanni whispered, “Look into their eyes. They are happy.” They must be, living as they do on the Minelli’s benevolent estate. Giovanni explained how and why they use both morning and evening milk in every batch of cheese. We also saw the impressive aging rooms, where the cheese slowly attains its maturity and full flavor. They produce only 14 wheels a day, personally attending to every single wheel! They only use milk from their own cows, and feed the cows forage only from the hills immediately surrounding their home. These guys, in their little spot on the globe, are as “local” as you can get.

To finish our visit, we gathered around a table in the open air at Giovanni’s home overlooking the Modenese hills. We tried several cheeses ripened to various ages, including 12, 30, 72, and an incredible and rare 120 month! Giovanni promised to reserve a few of the prized 120 month wheels for us, which we hope to receive in a few months. We normally carry the 30 month, which is beautifully balanced. It was a great meal, simple, but perfect. In addition to the cheese, we had crusty bread and some local sparkling red wine.

Some folks look at the price per pound of Parmigiano-Reggiano and think at around $20/lb it’s too expensive. But who eats a whole pound in one sitting!? OK...our gaggle of DLM food lovers, and maybe one other person who I know of: Luciano Pavarotti, who was a personal friend of the Minellis and would always travel with and consume their cheese before every performance to give him strength.

The Parmigiano-Reggiano made by the Minellis is a cheese that you can eat every day and never get tired of. At our home, it occupies the top shelf on the right door of our fridge for easy access. (If you’re ever visiting, help yourself.) Just a nibble or two and your satiated. So healthy, so easy, so satisfying. Some call Parmigiano-Reggiano the King of Cheese. I think of it as the Perfect Cheese. You really can enjoy it everyday: from the simple, say adding savoriness grated over a plate of steaming hot pasta or steamed veggies or a salad of greens, to the more complex—giving background as an ingredient in a soup or risotto recipe or a cream sauce. Best yet, just eat it; break it off into little chards and chunks and nibble away. I love it. And judging by how we sell hundreds of pounds every month, I’m not the only one with a penchant for Parmesan! Thanks to folks like the Minellis, we will always make sure you have a steady supply of Parmigiano-Reggiano, one of the world’s truly great foods.