One of the world’s best known and beloved cheeses comes from Emilia-Romagna. I’m talking about Parmigiano Reggiano of course, the king of cheeses.
Besides being world-famous, or perhaps because of it, Parmigiano Reggiano is also one of the most counterfeited Italian food products, which means many consumers who buy it abroad may not be eating the real thing, missing out not only on its extraordinary flavor, but also on its nutritional qualities. Yes, Parmigiano Reggiano is good for you! In fact, here in Emilia-Romagna, we feed it to children as soon as they get teeth 😉
Parmigiano Reggiano is widely employed in Emilia-Romagna’s cuisine, either as an appetizer, grated on pasta, or added as an ingredient to a number of dishes, including tortellini and other stuffed pastas.
Authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be produced in one area of the world, located in my native Emilia-Romagna: the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and part of the provinces of Bologna and Mantova. Parmigiano Reggiano has been made in the region since medieval times.
Parmigiano Reggiano has DOP status (Protected Denomination of Origin), a certification granted by the European Union used to indicate a product whose specific characteristics depend on the place where it’s produced; therefore, in order to be genuine, it cannot be made anywhere else.
Parmigiano-Reggiano’s authenticity is protected by its own consortium, the Consorzio del formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano.
‘Parmesans’ on the other hand are cheeses modeled after Parmigiano Reggiano, and can be produced anywhere (commonly in the U.S. and South America). In the European Union, it has been ruled that anything that is called ‘Parmesan’ must be real Parmigiano given that the word ‘Parmesan’ evokes that specific cheese. Outside the European Union however, there’s no such regulation, so things may be trickier.
Here’s what you should pay attention to in order to identify genuine Parmigiano Reggiano.
How to Buy Real Parmigiano Reggiano
Consortium’s Certification Marks
Looking for the Consortium’s certification marks is the safest way to ensure the Parmigiano you’re buying is authentic.
On the packaging
First, on the package verify that it has both the DOP stamp (it reads ‘Denominazione d’Origine Controllata’ in a red-and-yellow circle), and the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium logo, which is an image of a wheel and a slice of cheese, with the name ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ on a blue background, and the wording ‘Autorizzazione Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano no. ____’ right below.
This will be especially useful when you buy grated Parmigiano.
On the rind
After aging for a year, certified master cheese-testers determine if the wheels of Parmigiano comply with the strict standards of the Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano. The wheels that pass the test are fire-branded with the DOP oval certification mark and stamped with pin-dot marks on the rind that reads ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano,’ repeated all along the rind. When you buy a block of cheese, look for the pin-dot wording on the rind.
List of ingredients
Real Parmigiano Reggiano has only three ingredients (plus one that is not listed, and that is the cheesemaker’s craftsmanship): milk, salt (used to enhance flavor and as a natural preservative) and rennet (an enzyme that aids coagulation). If you see additives like microbial-based enzymes in place of the rennet, cellulose powder (an anti-caking agent) or potassium sorbate (a food preservative), then you’ll know right away that it’s not the real thing.
The simple elements above can help you determine if the Parmigiano you’re about to buy is genuine.
Now, if you’re looking to save, you can certainly go for similar but less expensive versions of Parmigiano, like Grana Padano, also made in Emilia-Romagna and in other regions of Northern Italy. Just be aware that the flavor won’t be the same and that distinct granular texture of Parmigiano just cannot be replicated.
If you’re worried about spending a lot for a piece of cheese that you think you’ll not use that often, know that Parmigiano Reggiano aged 24 months and beyond lasts about a month in the refrigerator (bought in block form, not grated).
Photo credits: Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano – parmigianoreggiano.com (except for second photo).
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