Commonly associated with Italy and especially the Emilia Romagna region, Parmigiano Reggiano (the real McCoy when it comes to Parmesan cheese) is without doubt a staple ingredient for Italian cuisine, an integral part of its history and a time-honoured tradition of Emilia-Romagna.
This phenomenal cheese is admired all over the world for its delicious flavour, but also respected for its deep roots in the local area where it has been produced for over 900 years with immense passion and meticulous care.
So, here is the story of Parmesan Cheese, how it is made, its nutritional properties and some simple yet tasty ideas for enjoying it at its best.
One of the most eagerly-awaited school trips for children in Emilia Romagna is a visit to a dairy farm. In my hometown of Parma, Parmesan cheese is not just a foodstuff, it is a cherished tradition which has been handed down from generation to generation.
What binds Parmesan cheese to its place of origin is a microbiological feature. In order to produce Parmesan, you need to use raw milk from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and part of the provinces of Mantua (to the right of the Po river) and Bologna (to the left of the Reno river). It is a very special milk teeming with the bacterial activity of an indigenous microbiotic flora which is heavily dependent on a certain number of environmental factors, especially the fodder and hay consumed by the local cattle.
For this very reason, no use is made of additives, preservatives or laboratory-selected bacteria during the production process of Parmesan Cheese. The milk is curdled only by adding rennet and the whey starter from the previous day’s processing, which is a culture packed with lactic acid bacteria.
Parmesan is a hard cheese which has been cooked and not pressed, before being allowed to slowly age. It is produced in Emilia only using raw milk, rennet and salt and artisanal techniques which are set down in the Product Specifications endorsed by the EU, methods which have been passed down from father to son for hundreds of years. Unlike other products, Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O. cannot be given quality branding unless it has been left to age for exactly 12 months (and this period can even be extended to over 72 months sometimes!)
Parmesan is a completely natural cheese made only of three ingredients: raw milk, rennet and salt. Its nutritional value mainly consists of high-grade protein (33 g for every 100 g of product), but it is also a source of calcium as well as being packed with group B vitamins, iron and zinc, all elements that boost our immune system as well.
Parmigiano Reggiano is also considered to be a highly digestible food. The careful processing and slow ageing allow the high-grade proteins (basically, proteins containing what are known as “essential” amino acids which our body cannot break down on its own) to be reduced into smaller “bits” called peptides, so our digestive system has less trouble extracting the essential amino acids and finds it easier to digest the foodstuff. Another factor not to be underestimated is its low lactose content.
Furthermore, thanks to a recent scientific research project coordinated by Marco Ventura and Francesca Turroni, we have been able to reconstruct the microbiota of Parmesan cheese with precision; this work highlights how “consumption of this food plays a vital nutritional role in the diet of human beings and has a health-giving effect due to the transfer of microorganisms which are able to regulate and enhance man’s intestinal microbiota”.
Parmigiano Reggiano is the King of Cheeses, but like all cheeses it must be consumed in the right quantities, even though it has fewer fats that other aged cheeses (28.4 grammes per 100 grammes of the edible part).
If it is grated over pasta or rice, the recommended intake is between 5/10 g (roughly a soup spoon); otherwise, if it is being eaten as part of a main course, the recommendation is to consume no more than 40/50 g twice a week.
Parmesan is a highly versatile cheese that can be grated over pasta or risottos, used to stuff ravioli, enjoyed as a side dish or paired with a snack or a sweet.
One excellent pairing, either as a sauce for pasta or as a light starter, is Parmesan with asparagus. For salad lovers, two excellent tasty ideas that are quite easy to prepare are a salad of raw artichokes with slivers of Parmesan and a salad made of rocket, pears, walnuts and slivers of Parmesan.
Parmesan can also be a really nutritious snack after physical exercise; try a chunk of cheese with some fresh fruit like grapes, figs, pears or apples, or even with some dried fruit. Lastly, don’t forget that it also makes for a special dessert, especially if you are a fan of cheese. A nice piece of Parmesan cheese drizzled with honey or balsamic vinegar is an excellent way to finish a meal.
Ms Cecilia Dieci
Biologist and nutritionist