According to recent estimates over 30,000 forms of Parmigiano Reggiano were destroyed in the recent earthquake in Reggio Emilia. In it’s honor, we present this post on the history of cheese with pictures of the birth of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Long ago a nomad set out on a journey; however, he didn’t want to be refreshed solely by water, rather, he decided to put into his leather saddle bags the sweet milk of one of the family’s sheep. Of course, by the time he reached his destination the milk had curdled. Thus, cheese was discovered. The origins of cheese are shrouded in the mists of time. The nomad is thought to have lived around 8,000 BCE but the first written records of cheese are found in Egyptian tombs circa 5,000 BCE. We know that when Homer ran into the Cyclops on his Odyssey, they were making cheese. Every hamlet created its own varieties. The terroir and methods of each produced different flavors with some becoming highly prized. Now, according to the Centre for Retail Research in England, cheese, especially more expensive cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano, have become the most stolen grocery item in the world.
Fine dining usually includes a cheese course when a cheese master rolls a cart to the table so diners can choose. Like a sommelier, this person might also suggest appropriate condiments to go with the cheese, such as honeys and fruit chutneys. In Italy, the cheese master is called a maestro assaggiatore, or “master taster” also known as “the nose”. Such a person is a highly respected professional, who has gone through extensive training. He or she purchases cheese directly from the source and then ages it in their own facility.
Cheese is actually not difficult to make. The morning milk of a goat, sheep or cow is mixed and cooked with the previous afternoon’s offerings and then “curdled” by adding rennet, an enzyme. The kind of enzyme or bacteria used will give the cheese distinctive characteristics. Rennet is made from the cleaned dried abomasums of a young calf. However, since ancient times, cheese makers have looked for other ways to coagulate the milk. In the Iliad it was suggested that the Greeks used an extract of fig juice to coagulate the milk. In modern times, vegetable coagulants are quite common in industrial cheese factories.
After coagulation the curds must be cut. The more cuts are made, the more liquid, or whey, will separate from the curds, and the drier the cheese will become. With artisanal cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano the cheese maker, whose skill and knowledge has often been passed down for generations, examines the curd, making sure it is cut properly and checks the temperature as it cooks. The cheese is then taken to a salt bath and then to be aged. This process may vary depending on the type of cheese being produced. Some cheese is infused with lemon or other flavors; some would not be bathed before aging, while others would be covered with wax, straw, or even soot while they age.
It is impossible to quantify exactly how many kinds of cheese there are in the world. Once discovered, humankind went wild for cheese. Easily transportable, it became valued for its taste, shelf life, and protein content. The elite vied to import their favorite flavors, and each variety developed a legend. One of my favorites comes from the Northern region of Piedmont. A young cheese maker’s apprentice had fallen in love with a cowherdess and when he heard the bells of the cows, he could think of nothing but her. Abandoning his post and his half finished cheese, he raced to be with his love. The next morning he tried to cover up and finish the cheese in the regular fashion. It did not go well and the cheese maker, a big burly man with hands as large as cheeses themselves, would have liked to throttle his apprentice. However, because the apprentice was his sister’s son, he had to figure out another way for revenge. “You will eat your mistake!” The boy did what he was told and discovered the flavor was magnificent. And so Gorgonzola Dolce, a fabulous blue vein cheese, was born.
In most of the world cheese is made from raw milk that has not been pasteurized. It is what gives different cheeses their distinctive character. Unfortunately, the FDA in its zeal to protect us, requires either pasteurization or a minimum aging period. Fresh cheese has not been aged long. It has the most moisture content of any cheese and you can taste the milk it is made from but you will need to travel to their country of origin to taste them.
There are so many different kinds of cheese that it may be difficult to figure out which to try first and must be disheartening to know that one may not have the chance to try them all. Softer cheeses are younger. Fresh goat cheese, cottage cheese, Neufchatel, mascarpone, and farmer’s cheese all are examples. Spun cheese, or pasta filata in Italian, is cheese that has been cooked and then kneaded, Mozzarella, Oaxaca or Provolone belong in the fresh cheese category. They can be tangy but are mild in flavor and chewy. Midlevel on the firmness scale is soft and semi-soft cheese. Examples are: Colby, Fontina, Havarti, Asadero, Port Salut, and Gouda. Again, there are as many variations of flavor in this category as there are cheeses. Most are somewhat mild but firm to the tooth. A favorite cheese in this category is the soft “Bloomy” ripened cheese such as Camembert, Brie and Humboldt fog. Their rinds are usually white and almost furry in texture, the cheese ripens from the outside in. Depending on ripeness, the flavor can range from mild to pungent, these are often the cheeses that people serve as hors d’oeuvres at gatherings.
Ricotta is actually not a cheese at all. In Italian it means “re-cooked” and it is the whey that was left over from the cheese making process and re-cooked to form the creamy curds that create the very fragile but fabulous whey “cheese”. Although ricotta is perhaps the most famous, Lor from Turkey, Urda from Romania, Brunost from Norway, Mizithra from Greece and Requeijao from Portugal are all terrific examples.
Hard cheeses are older and have less moisture. They are often aged for months to years before being eaten. They can be dry, tangy and grainy, due to their crystalline texture. They are eaten last on any cheese plate. Parmigiano Reggiano, often called the King of Cheese, falls into this category. After its brine bath, the cheese is taken to what some call the “cathedral” of cheese, a room full of wooden shelves from floor to ceiling full of wheels of cheese where it ages. However, the cheese is not left completely alone during the aging process. Someone, or now a robot, comes and wipes the sweat from the cheese and dusts it. Also, during the aging process, the cheese maker or member of the cheese organization will take the cheese down from its rack and tap it on it’s outside to see if it has any air pockets. If deemed worthy, the cheese will be branded and left to age longer. In the case of Parmigiano Reggiano, usually 12 more months. In special cases a Parmigiano Reggiano can be aged up to 5 years until it becomes Stravecchio, or “very old” and is especially prized. Other famous hard cheeses are aged Cheddar, which is marvelous up to 12 years, Switzerland’s Sbrinz, made from cow’s milk, a mountain cheese that must be aged a minimum of 16months, and one of the most popular of the Spanish cheeses, Mahon Sec, which is served both when mild & young but develops a piquant, nutty flavor when aged. Of course the Dutch Gouda, often thought of bland and rubbery when young transforms when it ages and is a wonderful surprise at age 5-7. Manchego, a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese has become especially popular and is often served with quince paste. Pecorino, is the classic Italian sheep cheese that, when aged, becomes intensely flavored. Hard cheese isn’t just for grating; many feel that the crystalline crunchy bits of hard cheese are one of its most pleasurable characteristics.
Mass produced industrial cheese making began in the 1850’s and spread throughout the world. It was during this time that cheese consumption spread to sub-Africa and the orient. By WWII, more people purchased processed cheese than artisanal. Of course, some continue to make their ancient perfect product. In a village that requires a two-hour hike to the foothills of the Alps, lives Leone, an 80-year-old cheese maker and keeper of a dying art. His cows feast on the fat sweet summer grasses of the mountain pastures, and, although he only makes one wheel a day, his cheese is known far and wide as the best expression of Monte Veronese. Leone despairs, as there is no one to follow in his art form. However, others are creating artisanal cheeses and here in the US we are experiencing a renaissance of product, many of which can be sampled at our local cheese festival.
Picking the perfect cheese can be a difficult, but very pleasurable task. Whatever kind of cheese you might enjoy, eat it at room temperature so that it won’t be too hard and its flavor can envelop your palate. The best way to discover cheeses is to have your local maestro assaggiatore explain a few to you and then sit down and enjoy.