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Very Hard Cheese

Pride in the Art Becoming the Driving Force

Volume 126, No. 40, Friday, April 12,  2002

Typified by Parm- esan from Italy, such cheese has proved to be a great way to store milk over an extended period, sometimes as long as 5 years. A prime example of necessity being set aside and pride in the art becoming the driving force. 
Parmesan is a gourmet cheese bar none, so intense the finished cheese can be used as a garnish to add life and zest to an otherwise bland dish. I am not intimate with the historical milk flow patterns of the region around Parma, but it does not appear to have been a region of frequent or extreme drought. 
That eliminates the necessity for cheese which would last for up to five years. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a strictly delineated D.O.C. region (Denominazione Di Origine Controllata), about which I will talk more later. Cheese produced in the region around Parma, a very small area and Reggio Emilia where most of the cheese is made. This D.O.C. branding and control ensures that the cheese is made in this region.
While excellent very hard cheeses are made elsewhere in the world this procedure is one of the oldest known and is steeped in history that dates back to before the Middle Ages.
The traditional process for making Parmesan starts with the evening milk, which is held in shallow vats, almost tray-like under cool conditions but not refrigerated. As the milk stands the cream will rise to the top and in the morning the skim milk from the bottom of the tray is drained off, this is mixed with milk from the morning milking and cheesemaking can commence. The cheese is made in copper kettles (110 - 220 gallons) large enough to yield one or two cheeses of approximately 66 -77 pound. These cheeses are approximately 14 - 18 inches in diameter and less than 10 inches high. 
To the milk is added starter, this is whey inoculated with whey from the previous day’s production, the predominant bacteria being Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Rennet is added in one of three forms, liquid, powder or paste. The nature of the coagulant used in this region is part of the formulation, which continues to make this cheese unique; these coagulant preparations deliver more than pure chymosin extract. 
Once the curd is coagulated at 86 - 89oF it is cut into very fine particles of around 1/16 of an inch. The temperature is raised slowly to 128oF then it is heated quickly to as high as 131oF. This procedure produces a very dry curd particle, the cultures have had little opportunity to develop acidity as the cook temperatures are well above their optimums. Cheeses made this way, which include the Swiss varieties, are characterized by their relatively high calcium contents.
The dense curd is allowed to fall to the bottom of the vats where it is scooped out with cheese cloth; once the curd has drained sufficiently it is placed in the mold with the cheese cloth and pressed for 24 hours. After being allowed to stand for another 24 hours the cheeses are placed in brine for up to 28 days at ambient temperature. The finished cheeses are then matured for 14 to 24 months at 64oF and 85% RH. Of course the cheese must be turned throughout the aging process, less as the cheese get older. 
What transpires inside this piece of cheese is incredibly complex, the final flavor is so complex I describe it as savory, it activates the taste senses of our palate in a unique way. The balance between the breakdown of the fat and protein is like no other cheese, with good full flavor that fills the mouth in waves while at the same time tingling the taste sensors that don’t normally get a work-out.
The flavor profile which we associate with this cheese is most certainly in part attributable to copper, copper ions to be more precise, as with Gruyere the vats in which the cheese is made are lined with copper, no they are not inside out. Brightly polished prior to each day’s production the copper imparted to the cheese induces a progression of events, oxidation of the fat being the most obvious in young cheese, forming the basis for the formation of some of the most pleasurable organoleptic experiences a cheese lover will experience. 
Flavors with this level of complexity are the result of time, attention to detail and harmony with the environment, not often reproduced away from the D.O.C. It is hard to find the commitment to this grand tradition in the modern world. Having said that many of the emulators are very rewarding to consume so, pull out your coltello per Parmigiano, the last of three knives used for breaking down traditional cheeses and share with your friends. Remember, these cheeses are to be savored. •

Neville McNaughton, president of Cheez Sorce, St. Louis, MO, has many years of experience manufacturing dairy products in both New Zealand and US. He has been a judge at several cheese competitions. Neville will be writing a regular column in Cheese Reporter and will take any questions regarding cheese manufacture. You can reach him at CheezSorce@sbcglobal.netjumhoefer@wischeesemakersassn. org


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