In the northern Italian region of Padana, winters were harsh during most of the High Middle Ages. This usually meant food shortages, increased diseases and a daily life that involved hard work and sacrifice to survive. Humble populations struggled during the warm seasons to accumulate food that could help them survive the cold seasons. 

The Benedictine and Cistercian religious monks at that time were among the few privileged who had access to manuscripts which lead them to greater knowledge. This helped them to face and solve hunger and diseases successfully or in a more efficiently way than the rest of the population. Thus, the monks implemented conservation principles to make food more durable and nutritious. They began getting involved in raising dairy cattle among other duties.

Nine centuries ago, in this context of need and desperation to preserve nutritious food to survive terrible winters, the famous Parmigiano Reggiano was born.

Parmigiano reggiano painting
The beginnings of Parmigiano Reggiano, Il formadio or the ‘form of God’ (forma=form, dio=God). Formadio was the name by which the cheese was known at that time. It later derived into formaggio which means cheese in Italian. This painting represents the production of Parmigiano in the Middle Ages.

In this article you will find:

History of Parmigiano Reggiano

How is Parmigiano Reggiano produced?


History of Parmigiano Reggiano

The Benedictine and Cistercian cheese dairies 

It was the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries that made the first Parmigiano Reggiano about 900 years ago.

The ingredients are still the same today: 

  • Water
  • Rennet
  • Salt
  • Milk 
  • A lot of patience for preparation

The need to generate a nutritious product to eat during the winter and the presence of the Salsomaggiore saline (for salting), led to the creation of this very special product.

The name derives precisely from the place of its production: from Parma comes Parmigiano and from Reggio Emilia comes Reggiano. 

If we take a really close look at the granulated Parmigiano cheese with a very powerful magnifying glass, it will reveal not only an immutable multitude of granules associated with the fact of being cheese, but even a panorama. It is an aerial photo of Emilia taken from a position equal to that of the Eternal Father.

Giovannino Guareschi

The first mentions in history

Parmigiano Reggiano was first described in the 12th century.

A notarial act in Bibbiano (Italy) speaks of the caseus parmensis. It is mentioned in a document because it was with the production of this cheese that the monks paid the rent of the abbey to the landowners. This parchment is the oldest document to mention the cheese in the lands where Parmigiano Reggiano is produced today.

In the 14th century it was the abbeys who had a monopoly on production and marketed it throughout Italy up to the Mediterranean.

A growing reputation

In the Decameron (1344), Giovanni Boccaccio describes a world called the Country of the Bengodi, an ideal place where everything abounds: food and pleasures.

And what can abound in the ideal country of an Italian? Parmigiano Reggiano, of course.  

[…]Berlinzone, a city of the Basques, in a country called Bengodi, where the vines are tied up with sausages and a goose is to be had for a farthing and a gosling into the bargain, and that there was a mountain all of grated Parmesan cheese, whereon abode folk who did nothing but make maccaroni and ravioli and cook them in capon-broth, after which they threw them down thence and whoso got most thereof had most; and that hard by ran a rivulet of vernage, the best ever was drunk, without a drop of water therein.

Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio

Parmigiano was one of the great pleasures within the reach of people who struggled to survive in times of hunger and the Black Death.

Parmigiano Reggiano’s expansion into Europe

As time went by, the fame of this cheese increased.

This cheese was very easy to trade because of its long-lasting parked that need no refrigeration. With time, it increased its popularity tremendously.

From the 16th century onwards, it was marketed all over Europe: the “forms” reached Germany, France and Flanders (today Belgium) where it was mentioned by the most famous chefs of the time. 

Vincenzo Campi, 'Cucina' (1580). This oil painting on canvas shows a woman grating parmigiano reggiano cheese as the central character.
Vincenzo Campi, ‘Cucina’ (1580). This oil painting on canvas shows a woman grating parmesan cheese as the central character.

The beginning of a need for protection: Designation of Origin 

Although the great fame, the need for protection also increased.The imitation of the Parmigiano Reggiano was beginning to appear and to expand widely.

In fact, on August 7, 1612 the first Denomination of Origin made by the Duke of Parma became official. He established the places from which the product must come to be called by its name. However, he had to wait until 1992 to obtain protection at European level and a lot of fraud happened in between. 

Parmigiano Reggiano Protected Designation of Origin is regulated by a Consorzio di Tutela. This consortium includes all the Parmigiano Reggiano producers in the region.

It is also responsible for quality control of the production facilities and the final product, deciding whether or not a last can be called Parmigiano Reggiano. We will expand on this further on.

An interesting present

In addition to its long history, Parmigiano Reggiano has a fame that continues to grow on and a reputation that reaches all the kitchens of the world. However, there is one thing that has not changed in Parmigiano Reggiano in the last 900 years: the way it is produced.

Despite technological advances, no additives or preservatives were ever allowed to be added to this product.

It is still the same one that the monks consumed in 1200 and paid their rents with!

Parmigiano reggiano brand Bertozzi logo
A 1930’s Parmigiano Reggiano advertisement. It represents three judges, recognizable by their wigs, smelling the Parmigiano Reggiano of the Bertozzi Company of Parma, delighted. The company Bertozzi was founded in 1901.

Parmigiano Reggiano production

I will tell you a bit about how Parmigiano Reggiano PDO is produced according to the current regulations. It is important to remember that, being a Protected Designation of Origin, nothing can be changed about the product or its production so it remains always the same.

It is all ruled by the Geographical Indications’ law of intellectual property.

Let’s start with the ingredients.

Ingredients of the Parmigiano Reggiano

The production of any food takes ingredients. As I mentioned above, the ingredients you need to create Parmigiano Reggiano are Milk, Natural serum, Rennet and Salt in form of brine.

No additives, flavourings or preservatives.

Each copper boiler with a capacity of 1100 liters will result in two forms of Parmigiano Reggiano in each production. To obtain a 35-kilogram last, you need 550 liters of milk!

And it all starts before dawn.

The raw material arrives at the establishment

To start the process, milk from cows is partially skimmed and then poured into an inverted bell-shaped copper boiler. The fat obtained from the milk is used to produce butter (another creation of that time).

It usually depends on the production regulations, but the breed of cow to be used can be Friesian, Red Reggiana or Bruna. 

The milk is transformed into cheese

Then, whey obtained from the previous day’s production —rich in lactic ferments— is added to the milk and heated to 33 degrees.

We add calf rennet obtained from the stomachs of lactating calves and in about 10-15 minutes we obtain a curdled milk.

The curdled milk is broken

With a device called spino, the curd is broken into granules and then the cooking phase begins up to 55 degrees.

Obtaining the cheese mass

The final cooked mass is compact and heavy. It is lifted on a linen cloth and cut in two. Each dough is placed to rest in a wooden mould where it will take its characteristic shape.

THE MARKS OF ORIGIN

Each form is assigned a casein plate with an unique and progressive alphanumeric code: this is the identity card that allows to identify its origin at any time and in any place.

After a few hours, a special marking strip records the month and year of production, the serial number that distinguishes the cheese and the unmistakable writing dotted around the circumference of the cheese.

Salting

The cheese is salted and immersed in a natural salt solution for about sixteen to twenty days. With this last step the cheese production cycle ends and the maturing period begins.

The importance of time

“Age is not important unless you’re a cheese

Hellen Hayes

Ripening is carried out on wooden boards in suitable rooms with controlled temperature and humidity. The history of Parmigiano Reggiano is long, but it is also slow, flowing at the natural rhythm of the seasons.

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese making

The birth of a Parmigiano Reggiano PDO

Only the cheeses that pass a very strict selection are marked with the oval stamp that identifies Parmigiano Reggiano DOP at the age of twelve months. This ripening period is the longest of all the cheeses with a Protected Designation of Origin in Italy. From that moment on they will be called Parmigiano Reggiano or not.

An interesting fact is that this cheese has no maturation limit. We can find Parmigiano Reggianos of eighteen, twenty four, thirty six and even fourty months old of maturation, almost three years and a half!

THE ROLE OF THE BATTITORE

A representative of the Designation of Origin Consortium  called  ‘Battitore’ visits the establishment for the selection process. He uses a special hammer to check each wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano (in addition to the visual and organoleptic control with the use of a needle) to “listen” for defects inside.

The sound of the hammer hitting the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese changes with the ripening time. It becomes weaker and sounds like a solid structure. The internal structure of the cheese becomes more compact.

Sadly, there are no schools to become a battitore yet, the only way you can become one is to practice and learn from another very experienced specialist.

RIPENING OF PARMIGIANO REGGIANO DOP

If it passes the hammer test but has some defects that do not allow it to be called Parmigiano Reggiano DOP, the cheese will be called formaggio nazionale or national cheese. 

We can find this type of cheese in many restaurants in Italy. There is a regulation that prohibits the sale of the whole wheel of cheese, so it’s only for sale in vacuum-packed pieces.

After selection the product can take two paths: 

  • The cheapest is going directly to supermarkets or gourmet shops within 12 months of maturation. Exception: Parmigiano Reggiano Vacca Rossa is not available until 24 months because of its different quality milk.
  • Continue its ripening until 18, 24, 30, or even 40 months and then go on sale. The classic Parmigiano Reggiano has 24 months of maturation.

There is a regulation that prohibits the sale of the whole wheel of cheese. So it’s for sale in vacuum-packed pieces.

A promising future

Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of cheeses, is a jewel both as a food and because of the history it carries on with it through generations.

Either as the main ingredient of the ideal country of Boccaccio or as for the years of its intact production and it different uses in history, as well as a form of payment once, it always remains as a nutritious food accompanying travelers, children and the elderly. 

Its worldwide fame will continue to grow and I hope that the uses of Parmigiano Reggiano in international cuisine will increase.

With the recent growth in sales of Parmigiano Reggiano to Middle Eastern Countries, I´m eager to witness all the culinary surprises we will experience in the future.

It is important to underline the role of the Consortium for the Protection of the Designation of Origin in the protection and promotion of the Parmigiano Reggiano terroir. Not only promoting the product but also maintaining the local customs that surround it. Its pale yellow colour, its graininess, its taste of milk, nuts, and herbs from the Padana plain…

If you ever tried it, you will know what I mean. If that is not your case, it´s never too late to step in this fascinating world of the King of Cheeses, from which there is no turning back, I must warn you.

Dive in and enjoy.

Parmigiano Reggiano, for me, is the complete cheese, the king cheese. Indeed, even as a table cheese, it has a fragrance, an aroma, that satisfies both the delicate and the strong customer. And it is always the cheese that satisfies both the competent and the poet of the table.

Louis Carnacina
parmigiano reggiano cheese