MYSTERIES OF PARMA PROVINCE
When we are in Parma situated on the half way between Milan and Bologna, we can give ourselves both a feast for eyes and tongue. After seeing beautiful frescoes in the local cathedral, we have a perfect occasion to get to know secrets of production a king among many kinds of cheese served on Parma tables a long time before revealing his painting talent by the master Correggio
We are leaving the city by the Pad river for a while and we are going along the SS9 road. On the both sides there are unending meadows and arable fields, ornamented with single buildings here and there. After a few minutes we are passing by a white plaque with the writing Bellen, we are turning right, passing by a small old church and we are going off the road. We got to our destination. Outside there are two little girls playing with dolls. We want to peer into a small shop -it is closed.
Time and precision
It is a few minutes past nine, and one can never see the owner. We are peering into a room with big windows. Inside there are three men wearing white aprons. One of them greets us with a wide smile. This is Danilo Nigroni, the owner of Caseificio Nigroni, a family company, which has produced parmesan cheese for a hundred years, in fact, the cheese is called ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ as this Italian snack is called so.
Danilo explains particular stages of production of parmesan, but does not stop working as time and precision have a lot of significance. First skimmed milk from the previous evening mixes with the fresh one from the morning milking and pours it into copper ladles, each of which can contain 1000 litres of the milk liquid. Milks is warmed up, whey is added, then ‘caglio’, that is, calf rennet (digestive enzyme). There is a coagulation process. The content of the ladle is warmed up to 55°C, while a cheese maker is also warmed up through a special tool – called ‘spino’ – it divides the forming curd into small grains. After a dozen minutes workers divide the curd into tow equal parts, put it onto canvass and stretch it out. A host pours off whey necessary for production the next day.
In a while he takes us to another building in which fresh cheese is put into special forms and is marked with a code, and after two days it is put into bath tub with brine. For 3 weeks the cheese is turned over regularly and the osmosis process will make sea salt crystals penetrate its inside.
Quality and taste
It is nearly eleven o’clock, cheese producers can rest, having finished their busiest time of day. We are sitting outside in the shadow. On the table by cheese there is a crunchy baguette, fresh butter made here, salami and regional red sparkling wine. Danilo is cutting parmesan with a small knife, giving it to us to taste – it is delicious. He is telling us why the king of all kinds of cheese deserves his name. Everything begins with milk. It comes only from two races of cows fed only with grass or hay, bred by licensed suppliers near Parma and Reggio Emilia. Strict norms of milk and cheese production have been implemented since 1934 by Consorzio Del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano. The company also pursues promotion activity and takes legal steps towards companies which counterfeit parmesan. The cheese has a protected name of origin (PDO). It means that it is made on a particular area and meets suitable procedures of quality. Regarding the high price (about 20 euro per one kilo in retail)and popularity, the amount of non-original parmesan is higher than the certified one, produced in nearly 500 small cheese factories.
As Danilo emphasizes, beside its unique taste, the power of parmesan is also in its nutritionals. It is composed of only natural ingredients, does not include lactose thanks to which it is digested by people with lactose intolerance or allergy. It contains a lot of protein easily to digest (much more than meat or fish) or calcium which should be appreciated by seniors and sportsmen. It is easy to store. One can add it to nearly every dish, also desserts.
A family and a little hammer
Specifics of producing cheese only from fresh milk makes production be done every day, also on Sundays and holidays. Families of cheese-makers must be understanding. It is so in the case of Danilo. He is a happy husband of Madga, a Polish woman, whom he met in Częstochowa during the World Youth Days. A few years later, to commemorate that event, the spouses gave a circle of parmesan to John Paul II during a private audience, as thank offering, which brought a smile of the pope’s face. They are parents of four daughters and son Pietro, who is going to take over the cheese factory according to the family tradition and representing the fifth generation of cheese producers in Bellen.
It is a few minutes past two, we are setting off with our host to a warehouse where cheese is getting ready. We are entering it – nice cool air and acute smell of parmesan strike us. Thousands of circles of the 45 cm diameter and the weight of 40 kilos, evenly arranged from the floor up to the ceiling on wooden shelves, are placed here from 12 to 36 months in a suitable temperature and humidity. Parmesan is the most popular and it was getting ready for 2 years. When we are walking among shelves, we hear echo of quiet knocking. Every piece is knocked at by a little hammer by a specialist, who defines on the basis of the sound he hears whether it does not have any defects. Then the cheese is stamped with the logo of the company, giving consumers the guarantee of the highest quality.
In the afternoon, when we are passing by the Parma cathedral, we are nearly sure that the master Corregio, who was ornamenting the inside of the copula with the painting of Mary’s Entering Heaven alive, must have loved parmesan produced in the nearby monasteries of the Benedictines and Cistercians from the 12th century.