Now that focaccia is selling like proverbial hot cakes, the sun-dried tomato is practically a national fruit, and imported pastas are found in almost every kitchen cupboard, there can be no doubt America is totally impassioned with the foods of Italy.
Despite this clamor, many of us are missing one of that country's most edible masterpieces. As we unthinkingly sprinkle our pastas with coarse-tasting flecks from jars and cans, few of us realize that we are overlooking a cheese that experts single out as one of the finest in the world.
The label may say "Parmesan," but the contents of those jars and cans bear as much resemblance to Italy's most sought-after cheese as a tricycle does to a Ferrari. If these common grated cheeses were the only offenders in this case of mistaken identity, avoiding them would solve the problem. In fact, sorting through all the imitations and stand-ins for real Parmesan cheese can be confusing.
However, once you have tasted a great Parmesan, you are not likely to forget it. Imagine transforming the luscious bouquet of a meadow filled with fresh hay and wild flowers into a taste, then mixing it with ripened nuts, and packing the whole thing into a cheese. Relish it as Italians do, as an unparalleled eating cheese. Each bite blossoms on the tongue with flavors that are big and satisfying. In the kitchen, Parmesan has the uncanny ability to boost a dish's flavors, often making the whole greater than its parts.
With all these attributes, why is true Parmesan so misunderstood? Years ago when Italy's Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese was Americanized into "Parmesan," it became a generic term meaning any hard, grating cheese from Italy, or any cheese made elsewhere in some imagined Italian style.
In fact, Parmigiano-Reggiano is the only true Parmesan, and it possesses a 700-year heritage of artisanship. But ask your cheese seller for a piece of "Parmesan" (as opposed to Parmigiano-Reggiano) and brace yourself for confusion. You may be offered domestic, Argentine or even Italian Parmesan that is not true Parmesan. Asiago Parmesan, Grana Parmesan, Grana Padano Parmesan, Reggiano Parmesan, Parmigiano Parmesan and Pecorino Parmesan may all be from Italy but they are not Parmigiano-Reggiano.
This part-skim milk cheese is made solely in a legally designated zone of northern Italy's Emilia-Romagna region (and a small part of neighboring Lombardy). Try producing the cheese outside that zone and it ages differently. No matter how flavorful, the outlander cheese never acquires the round, deep character of a fine Parmigiano-Reggiano.
All the others are fine cheeses in their own right and belong in the dishes of their respective parts of Italy. Use them where called for, but know they do not taste like, or marry with other ingredients like Parmigiano-Reggiano. Many are called granas (meaning grain), a term often erroneously used to mean kinds of Parmesan. This generic description of Italian aged, hard cheeses comes from the speckling of their interiors with white, grain-shaped dots of crystallized amino acids. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a grana; not all granas are Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Ironically, Parmigiano-Reggiano's broad appeal may be its greatest enemy. Everyone wants it, so imitations and substitutions are rampant. Even centuries ago cheese merchants throughout Europe called any cheese Parmesan if it was Italian, hard and could be grated, no matter what its origin.
When a consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese producers and dairymen was formed in 1934, the cheese's official zone was made law. Because it was first made centuries ago in the Enza River Valley that now divides the provinces of Reggio and Parma the cheese became Parmigiano-Reggiano. By the early 1950s the consortium started stenciling the cheese's rind with its name, making it possible to identify a wheel of true Parmigiano-Reggiano anywhere in the world.
The cheese is still made by artisans as has been done since the 13th century. A master cheese maker (casaro in Italian) of Parmigiano-Reggiano has apprenticed 10 to 14 years and then makes cheese every day of his life until retirement with no vacations or holidays. As one master chuckled, "The cows give milk twice a day no matter what. They don't stop because it is Christmas." In return for this commitment, the cheesemaker receives a generous salary, a home attached to the dairy and all the ricotta and butter he can use or sell.
The cheese they produce is aged from 18 months to three years. While all cheeses branded with the consortium's large oval stamp meet its standards for Parmigiano-Reggiano, many exceed them, and those are the cheeses that make the memorable eating. For the best flavor, buy from a newly opened cheese rather than one that was cut days ago. Always buy the chunks, grating it as needed, or cutting it into pieces for eating. Here are some tips for buying and keeping Parmigiano-Reggiano:
Appearance: The rind should be evenly colored a soft, old gold and stenciled with a repeating vertical pattern of "Parmigiano-Reggiano." Without this marking, it is not Parmesan. The cheese's interior can range from soft yellow to pale straw, depending on what time of year the cheese was produced. Cut sides that are dried out, or a line of dryness up against the rind that is wider than about a 1/4 inch indicates an improperly stored cheese.
Aging: Despite traditional Italian lore, older is not better. Before World War II the zone had different cows. Their milk yielded cheeses that could age longer than today's Parmesans. Modern Parmigiano-Reggiano is in its prime at two years. The month and year of the cheese's birth is found in the two boxes stamped on either side of the oval consortium brand. One states the years, the other the month. Until 1984 Parmigiano-Reggiano was made only from April 1 to Nov. 11. Today it is produced all year to the delight of some experts who prefer the rich, velvety qualities of winter cheeses. Others favor the delicacy of spring cheeses, or the flowery quality of summer ones.
Taste: Always taste before buying. No two Parmigiano-Reggianos are identical. A superb one has big, deep flavors. The cheese turns creamy and crackly on the tongue, and the flavor deepens as you chew. Most telling is the aftertaste. It should create a desire for more. Saltiness, sharpness, tartness, or an annoying tang are all signs of an inferior cheese.
Storage: Wrap air tight in foil or vacuum plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator up to four weeks. Freezing Parmigiano-Reggiano breaks down its structure and alters its taste. If the cheese threatens to dry out, enfold it in a lightly moistened towel and wrap loosely in foil or plastic wrap. Refrigerate for a day, then remove the towel and rewrap air tight.
Once you have bought some Parmigiano-Reggiano, the ways to enjoy it are virtually endless:
A favorite Renaissance pairing still delicious today is bite-sized pieces of Parmigiano-Reggiano with slivers of fresh fennel served as dessert.
Parmigiano-Reggiano and pasta are synonymous. Try a lightened version of the traditional butter and cheese dressing for pasta. Boil down four cups of homemade chicken broth to about one cup. Stir in two tablespoons of butter and toss the sauce with one pound of cooked tagliatelle. Blend in 1 1/2 cups of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and serve immediately.
Top baked red-skinned potatoes with Parmigiano-Reggiano instead of butter. Sprinkle it on oven-roasted, grilled or steamed vegetables.
Slather toasted country bread with a blend of roasted garlic and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Thickly shave Parmigiano-Reggiano over a salad of escarole, leaf lettuce and fresh herbs dressed only with olive oil and vinegar.
Blend one cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano into your next meatloaf for a big boost in flavor.
Grill zucchini or eggplant slices, top with a mixture of Parmesan, minced garlic and Italian parsley, and barely warm under the broiler. The same blend is luscious on bruschetta.
In Reggio's neighboring province of Modena, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano are served with just a drop of two of old Balsamic vinegar.
Parmigiano-Reggiano and soup is a miraculous combination. Try grating the cheese over bowls of chicken broth, vegetable or bean soups, or into your next homemade tomato soup.
Tuck big shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano into pockets of chicken breasts or veal chops before grilling.
Shave Parmigiano-Reggiano over a salad of raw mushrooms. Dress with olive oil, lemon and black pepper.
For a home-style baked pasta dish from Emilia-Romagna, stuff one pound of cooked hollow rigatoni with a blend of a cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano, 1 1/2 cups of defrosted tiny peas, 2/3 cup of chopped scallions and four tablespoons of chopped fresh basil. Layer in a casserole with generous spoonfuls of your favorite tomato sauce, sprinklings of Parmesan and daubs of half a pound of ricotta. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until bubbly.
Parmigiano-Reggiano and ripe pears is one of the great desserts of all time. Make sure the fruit and cheese are at room temperature.
Best of all is eating chunks of the cheese all by itself, or perhaps with a soft red wine; but nothing more. Let it warm in your mouth as the flavor grows. Savor its haunting goodness, and then reach for the next piece.
-- Lynne Rossetto Kasper is a Minnesota-based freelance writer.