Twins, wheels, and hammers

I lived with a chap once who would throw up at the smell of Parmesan cheese. He hated the smell. Absolutely detested it. And this was back in a day and a place where Parmesan cheese came out of a shaker, already grated.  Every time I smell it, I think of him. Weird.

De Wimmen told me once that France would be wasted on me as I didn’t drink wine, eat olives, or appreciate cheese. I’ve grown up a lot since then.

But for years, Parmesan was something I added to stuff – to pizzas, pastas, salads. It was never one of those cheeses I ate chunks of. But in Milan last year, an Italian friend introduced me to the joy that is real, aged, Parmesan, and I was converted. So much so that when I was in Parma (after seeing the Parma ham production facility) I tagged along on a study tour of a Parmesan cheese facility, one of 161 in the region.

IMG_0385 (800x600) (2)Did you know that Parmesan cheese is only made in the morning?  Milk is collected from the farms twice a day from cows who are fed an all-natural diet of grass and hay. Nothing else. [Oops… doesn’t that mean they’re locked up all the time? Or muzzled? Not good.] The evening milk is collected in the evening and left to sit overnight to let the cream rise to the top. The next morning, when the morning milk arrives, it’s added to the now-skimmed milk from the previous evening. (It takes 16 litres of milk to make 1kg of cheese.)

Some fermented whey is added to the new mix as it is heated in massive cauldron and starts to acidify it. To this is added rennet (an enzyme that comes from the stomach of a milk-fed calf or goat – who knew?). Rennet coagulates the milk and so it begins to curd.

IMG_0368 (800x600)Now, imagine the whisk in your kitchen on steroids and you might come close imagining to the massive one that cheese makers call a spino, which they use to break up the large clumps of curd into much  smaller pieces. All the while, the milk is still cooking. When it gets to a certain temperature, the heat is removed and after an hour or so all the little curds sink to the bottom – and so the cheese begins to form.

IMG_0384 (800x600)This goo is removed from the liquid using a wooden paddle and wrapped in muslin in the shape of a large wheel [I suspect I missed a step and the goo is actually put into stainless steel moulds – which I saw lying around – but I wouldn’t swear to it. Our guide had a fab handbag draped over her arm and I was a little distracted.] There is enough in each cauldron to make two wheels so they’re rather appropriately, if oddly, called twins. The twins are then literally hung out to dry – to rid themselves of excess liquid. What’s left in the cauldrons (whey) is used for the next day’s cheese and what’s not needed goes to feed the local pigs, which will soon end up as Parma ham. There’s a certain holistic something to that, don’t you think?

IMG_0369 (800x600)When a lot of the excess liquid has dripped away, the wheels are moved into round wooden forms and branded with date of birth, origin, etc. (I love this traceability stuff.) They’re turned a few times as the liquid continues to drain and the cheese is still soft. A piece of plastic with the words Parmigiano Reggianno is slotted between the cheese and the edge of the wooden frame and thus the cheese is branded – name, date and serial number. Oh if only they could talk.

IMG_0383 (800x600)These wheels are then put in tanks of sea-salted water where they sit for more than three weeks (about 25 days). While they’re here, they lose about 4% in weight with the average end weight being about 42 kg. From there it’s off to the curing room where they stay for a whole year. But they receive constant care and attention. Every 10-15 days or so, each wheel is brushed, wiped and flipped.
IMG_0401 (600x800) (2)After a year, the cheeses are tested. Each one. An in-house expert takes his hammer and taps the cheese. His trained ear can tell if there are any pockets of air or abnormalities. (Imagine that conversation in a pub – so, what do you do for a living?) And if it’s not 100%, the rind is removed and it’s striped – i.e., it gets stripes. This shows it’s a decent cheese but not IMG_0400 (800x600) (2)good enough to be branded as Parmigiano Reggianno and will retail at slightly less than the real thing. So if you’re being sold  Parmigiano Reggianno  without a rind… be careful… it ain’t the real thing. [And the rind is edible – so no more throwing it away.]

I never knew that you could invest in cheese wheels. Buy a load of them and wait 12 months in the hope that the price goes up. You rent the space at an ageing facility and sit it out.  I bought some at the facility for €13/kg. At the airport it retailed at€35. Same bloody cheese. Perhaps it’s worth looking into.

IMG_0390 (800x600) (2)IMG_0398 (800x600) (2)PS. Lactose intolerant? Apparently if the Parmigiano Reggianno  is older than 30 months, you’re good to go. It’s safe to eat.

PPS. Cheese = milk, whey, rennet. Therefore ricotta is not a cheese. Amazing what you learn.





Counterfeit ham

I’ve heard of fake Gucci bags, fake Rolex watches, fake tans, but fake hams? This was a first for me. In Parma last month, I had the chance to join a guided tour of a Parma ham facility and I jumped at it. I wanted to see just what puts the Parma into Parma ham, a brand so precious to the producers that they spend about €1 million each year on protecting it.

IMG_0321 (800x600)Parma ham as no additives. The only thing that touches it, other than human hands, is salt – rock salt. When it comes in to the facility, it is trimmed of excess fat and given that distinctive shape. It’s then stamped with its birth date – the date it entered the facility and then given a metal seal saying which slaughterhouse it came from (a little like a passport).

IMG_0328 (800x600)Not alone does it have an ideal shape, each ham has an ideal weight – about 15kg. The mind boggles. The production process takes time with each ham getting lots of personal attention in the way of salt massages. It’s salted, rinsed, cold-stored for a couple of weeks, and then salted, rinsed, and stored again. It goes from a cold phase to a warm phase (tempered) and is washed and dried and cured. Each stage can take a couple of weeks and through the whole process (which can take 6 months) it loses about 36% of its original weight.

IMG_0345 (800x600)It’s manually greased with a mix of pork fat, rice flour, and black pepper, to soften up the outside. What a job. And then it’s aged. To be a Parma ham, it has to be at least 12 months old, with 16-18 months being the most popular age. And before it gets the final stamp of approval, it’s manually controlled. It’s quickly pierced in five places with a wooden skewer which is then immediately smell-checked. This is a skill, believe me. And I can’t imagine how it works as a chat-up line. So, what do you do for a living?

IMG_0350 (800x600)Once it’s passed the in-house quality test, the powers that be are called in and if it meets with their approval, it gets the final seal of authenticity. These large hunks of ham can have as many as five seals, just in case some time down the road, they are sold as smaller pieces – if they don’t have the seal, they’re not Parma ham.

IMG_0335 (800x600)The facility I visited had a 70 000 piece capacity. The building, with its isolated elevators and clearly numbered cold storage rooms, was state of the art. The open windows in the drying room begged the question as to why. Apparently, Parma production facilities are located in a particular geographic area where the winds from the sea meet the mountain air and it’s this wind or aromatic air (the Marino wind) that gives the meat its flavour.

Retailing at about €25/kg, it has shelf life of about a year. And only the hind legs of the pig are used and those pigs are usually from North and Central Italy, not from the south or Sardinia.

I think I overdosed on it all though – as by the end of the week in Tuscany, I’d had enough. It’s only now, a month later, that I can face it again. And I’m on the lookout for fakes, ready, willing, and parmed to report any fakes

IMG_0358 (600x800).