How to find the legitimate Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Posted: October 18, 2012

HOW CAN YOU tell if the Parmigiano Reggiano you are buying is the real deal? Simone Ficarelli, head of international activities for the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano - the Parma, Italy-based consortium of 382 artisanal cheese producers that make authentic Parmigiano Reggiano - can read an 80-pound wheel of cheese like a Penn archaeologist reads hieroglyphics.

These signs really matter. A wheel that bears the consortium's seal of approval can sell for $1,000. Lacking the seal, a cheese is worth a fraction of that. Although most of us just buy chunks, ask to see a whole wheel at Claudio King of Cheeses, DiBruno Brothers or other cheese purveyors and check the markings for yourself.

Follow the dots: The rind of a real-deal wheel has the words "Parmigiano Reggiano" stamped into its sides. If the cheese isn't good enough - an average of 8 percent of all wheels don't get a consortium nod - the stenciling is rubbed off and the cheese goes for grating.

Look for the DOP: "Denominazione di Origine Protetta" (Protected Designation of Origin) guarantees that a cheese came from a specific region in Italy and was made under traditional methods.

Similar to the appellation d'origine controlee in France's wine regions (true Champagne can't come from anywhere else), PDOs are respected throughout the European Union.

Stamp collecting: True Parmigiano Reggiano is stamped with the date it was produced, the circular brand of the consortium, the month and year the cheese was approved, a four-digit number in a square that identifies the farm responsible for the cheese, and a small blue stamp with "IT" and "08" on it to indicate it passed the EU's hygienic code.

If you had a hammer: Most of us wouldn't know what to do with it when it comes to Parmigiano Reggiano. But a cheese whisperer like Gianni Moreni, who recently retired after more than 40 years doing quality control for the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, certainly does.

A slight man with an easy, shy manner and small, strong hands, Moreni, the son of a cheese-maker, checked every wheel with the tap of a small acoustic hammer, listening for a sound he described as compact, with no vibrations. Color, texture, aroma also are judged.

Keep it fresh, eat it right: Now that you know your cheese is authentic, store it properly - in the refrigerator and tightly wrapped in plastic. Twenty minutes before eating, take it out of the fridge and unwrap to let it breathe. Eat cheese by itself or drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar.

- Beth D'Addono

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