Italian chefs are fond of calling Parmigiano-Reggiano "The King": It's the Elvis of the cheese world. Ten years ago, this would have been news to Americans; Kraft had most of us convinced that Parmesan was not the noble Parmigiano-Reggiano, but spaghetti cheese shaken out of a green cardboard can. But now that serious Italian restaurants have largely replaced the red-checked tablecloth sort--and exposed their customers to the real Parmesan--many of us have learned to ask for the King.
Is this cheese snobbery , this insistence on a very expensive cheese made only in a small area of north-central Italy? Or a fad? Defenders of the King insist it's not. Once you get a taste of the real stuff--crumbly, earthy and rich as wine--there's no turning back: everything else is sawdust.
Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, pre-green can Americans, were avid Parmigiano-Reggiano fans. Both tried to find a way of making the cheese in the United States. Both failed. Jefferson admitted his defeat in a letter to an Italian friend. "You were right," he wrote, "it's better to leave Parmesan making to the people who know what they're doing."
Jefferson shouldn't have felt too bad: Even cheese makers in Italy can't duplicate Parmigiano-Reggiano outside Parma, Reggio Emilia (where the first Parmesan was made), Modena, Bologna and Mantua. Italian cheese makers who use the Parmesan method outside these districts are required by law to name their cheese something else. Lodi, for instance, calls its cheese Grana Lodigiano. And Grana Padano is the general label given to the rival Parmesan-like cheeses produced north of the Po river. (Grana, or grain, refers to the cheese's grainy texture.)
What separates Parmigiano-Reggiano from the rest of the grana is a matter of both luck and law. The production area turns out to be the world's most perfect environment for this particular cheese. "It has the right cows, the right grass and the right climate," says Italian restaurateur Mauro Vincenti. Stringent cheese laws enacted during the '50s and '60s codified the cheese making process and set up standards to ensure consistency. For example, Parmigiano-Reggiano must be aged for at least two years before it can be sold. The ripening time for grana is more flexible--from one to two years.
And while cows who provide the milk for non-Parmesan grana cheese can munch on anything they want, Parmigiano-Reggiano cows are on a strict grass-only diet during the cheese-making season, which lasts from April 1 to Nov. 11. (Off-season cheese from hay-fed cows is too pale in color to be called Parmigiano-Reggiano.)
But well before the cheese laws went on the books, Parmigiano-Reggiano was getting rave reviews. Moliere and Tolstoy wrote favorably about the cheese. And in the pirate yarn "Treasure Island," Robert Louis Stevenson had his most sensible character, Dr. Livesey, carry around a piece of Parmesan in his snuff box as an emergency provision: "made in Italy," Livesey said, "very nutritious."
But as the popularity of the cheese spread, so did corruption. Unscrupulous dealers passed off bum cheese (some with artificial additives, some improperly aged) to generations of less knowledgeable consumers. In 1964, to protect themselves from poseurs, the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese makers' union began to stencil the words "Parmigiano-Reggiano" all over the edge of each genuine cheese.
Still, hijackings of cheese trucks occasionally occur, and when some merchants were discovered selling Parmesan mixed with banana peels, among other additives, a national scandal erupted in Italy.
These days, cheese detectives, hired by Italy's Consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese, keep a vigilant eye on cheese shops in Italy, France and Switzerland--the only countries where the Parmigiano-Reggiano name is protected.
But the best protection real Parmesan gets comes from the cheese makers themselves. Making and aging the cheese requires certain highly specialized skills that even today are typically passed down from parent to child. Throughout its aging, for example, Parmesan caretakers constantly tap their cheeses with small metal hammers, listening for imperfections within. Waverley Root, in his "Food of Italy," describes the complicated procedures required when a cheese has become infected with bacteria:
"When a hollow sound from the hammer blow reveals the presence of a cavity--an abscess, one might say--surgery is called for. The cheese is opened, the cavity is scraped to remove all bacteria lurking there, and it is cauterized with a hot iron to kill any that may have escaped. Thus healed, it continues to age along with its unscathed brothers."
To Mauro Vincenti, none of this is surprising. As he sits in his West Hollywood restaurant, Pazzia, talking to a visitor about the wonders of Parmesan, he holds a chunk of the cheese and examines it. "See how it falls into its own little shapes when you break it? This is not cheese to be sliced."
He talks of the proper tool for breaking into a wheel of real Parmesan (never a knife, but a stout, teardrop-shaped cotello ); of the wonderful, and proper, graininess of the cheese ("almost like chewing glass," he says), unlike the smooth textures Americans are used to; of its great social attributes ("Set out a wheel of Parmesan at a party and watch how it draws people together," he says. "It will be king of your table"); of its growing demand ("We can never get the best here in the United States--most of the product gets absorbed in its own region"); and of the cheese-making region itself ("I conceived my first child in Parma," he says).
Not content with talk, he has his chef, Umberto Bombana, demonstrate how Italians use Parmesan in their cooking: first a pasta perfumed with herbs, tomato and Parmesan is brought out, then veal medallions sitting in a fresh pea sauce with shavings of Parmesan crowning the top.
"The cheese demands a certain respect," Vincenti is saying between bites. "Ideally, it should be grated at the moment of serving." At Pazzia, the first Parmigiano-Reggiano grating of the night takes place at 6:30 p.m., and every half-hour thereafter until closing.
Generally, the best Parmesan is believed to be that cheese made in the month of May, or Maggio. Vincenti, however, is also a fan of the September issue. He is one of the growing numbers of Parmigiano-Reggiano connoisseurs who approach their cheese appreciation as they would fine wine. Some shops even stock the cheese according to year and month. Like wine, the older cheese is most prized, though there is a contingent of aficionados who favor young Parmesan.
Finally, Vincenti is asked to recall his first taste of Parmesan. At this he shakes his head and laughs: "We are born with Parmesan . . . since I had my first pasta, I had Parmesan."