When I talk about Parmesan or “Formaggio” as my mother called it, I am not referring to that pre-grated stuff found in jars on supermarket shelves or on tables in pizzerias. True Parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano) is aged 18 months to 3 years and comes in beautiful gold-colored 80-pound wheels. Most Parmigiano is made from the partly skimmed milk of Holstein and Red (vacche rosse) cows raised in a precisely mapped territory within the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia in the region of Emilia Romagna. Italy produces about 125,000 metric tons of Parmigiano each year. When purchasing Parmigiano, if you are not lucky enough to live near a market that has whole Parmigiano wheels on display, then you are likely to come across wedges that have been cut from the wheel and wrapped in plastic for sale and display.
The cheese should be examined for these special qualities:
- Check the rind for the words “parmigiano-reggiano” stamped repeatedly around the cheese.
- There should be no more than ½ inch of dryness next to the rind
- The center of the cheese should be grainy or flaky when broken.
- The cheese should have a pale cream to yellow straw color.
- Never buy Parmigiano with holes in it.
- Never buy Parmigiano that looks moist or oily.
- If you have the option, always ask for Parmigiano to be cut directly from the wheel, not only will the cheese be at its optimum freshness, but also if you happen to be present at the time, the aroma will be absolutely intoxicating.
There were always a few wedges of Parmigiano in my parents’ fridge. To this day I can still catch my father having a late night snack. He will often wake up in the middle of the night and go sit at the kitchen table with a piece of crusty bread, a napkin, a sharp knife and a wedge of Parmigiano. When my mother was alive she would follow him to the kitchen to cut the Parmigiano for him and keep him company till he was done.