Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Impact on Coronavirus Pandemic
Parmesan cheese comes from a specific region of Italy called Emilia Romagna. It is also a region that was hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. As of April 15, 12% of Italy's confirmed cases were in Emilia Romagna. This put the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese industry right at the center of the current crisis. The whole country went into lockdown on March 10, with only essential jobs allowed to carry on, including Parmigiano production.
How the coronavirus crisis is affecting the making of Italy's most iconic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Dairies are not fighting against a shortage of milk or other ingredients. Their biggest issue is the virus itself. To avoid a milk surplus and being forced to sell it, the 335 Parmigiano Reggiano Dop dairies have started to work together, share vats, and accept another dairy's milk if its personnel is sick. Some retired dairymen have been called back to work, and cheese production has been extended to the evenings too. The dairy hasn't had to resort to any of these measures yet.
But three dairies in the region have had to send their milk to other dairies, and one dairy has been forced to do so as the absolute last resort and sell their milk to a milk company. The crisis has also caused other changes. Parmigiano cheesemakers are taking measures to implement social distancing, washing hands as much as possible, and keeping access limited. But that might not always be possible.
Some steps of cheese making require dairymen to be in close contact with each other, like when 50-kilo blocks of curd like this one are transferred into molds. So how are they managing that while keeping the environment safe?
Another instance where social distancing might be hard to implement is when it comes to inspecting the cheese before it's ready to be sold as Parmigiano Reggiano. This happens after 12 months and is typically done by a third-party master grader who works for the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium.
No matter which step of production, Parmigiano cheese making is a job that requires touching the cheese with bare hands, an evergreen dilemma that perhaps now has taken a whole new meaning. While this may be the biggest health crisp parmesan dairies have ever faced, this is not the first time they have faced difficult times.
In 2012, a magnitude 6 earthquake struck the region, and warehouses full of Parmigiano Reggiano wheels crashed to the ground, damaging a million wheels, which at the time accounted for 30% of production. That triggered a wave of solidarity among the Parmigiano dairies.
How are Italians responding to this new crisis? According to Nicola, with people confined to their homes, doing more cooking, and looking for comfort in the foods they love, the demand for Parmigiano has never been so high.
How can you tell if what you're eating is real or fake Parmigiano Reggiano?
It's probably your favorite thing to put on your spaghetti or your pizza, but it's also definitely not what you think it is. Every time you rip open a packet of complimentary Parmigiano cheese to sprinkle it onto piping how pizza, you're sprinkling it all over with.
Well, god knows what, but it's not parmesan cheese. If it is real Parmigiano cheese, you could probably pay your college tuition with all the packets of parm that you've collected over years of ordering delivery pizza. This might come as a shocker to you, but companies have been purposefully mislabeling their products as real Parmigiano cheese when what they serve is anything.
We know, a company trying to get one over on poor, ignorant consumers? What a stretch. What might also not surprise you is that the US government is actively helping cheese hustlers sell you fake Parmigiano Reggiano Dop.
Real aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can run $1,000 a wheel or more, depending on how long it's been aged, and at that price point, you'd probably be counting every single flake of aged Parmigiano Reggiano that you sprinkle onto your spaghetti.
Known as the “king of cheeses”, Parmigiano is so expensive because it can only be physically produced in just one small area of the world inside Italy. Here, the unique bacteria that cows ingest and transfer into their milk grows abundantly but has difficulty growing anywhere else. With only a few towns in Italy that can make the stuff, real Parmigiano cheese- or Parmigiano Reggiano Dop, if you want to be completely insufferable about it- is in quite limited supply.
Additionally, the fact that it must be aged at least a year before being sold and you can start to see why the price of real Parmigiano cheese is so high. This authentic king of cheeses commands such a high price that the aged Parmigiano Reggiano industry spread out across just a few towns in Italy is worth well over $2 billion every year.
So how exactly does one make the king of cheeses? Considering the technique is over 800 years old and can only be used in one tiny area of the world, it must be a complex, difficult process. Not really, turns out all you need to make real Parmigiano cheese is milk, salt, and rennet- enzymes from the stomach of a cow that help curdle milk. Oh, and time, a lot of time.
First, you have your dairy cow graze on specific grass in this region of Italy, which seems like three types of bacteria needed for Parmigiano Reggiano distinct flavors. Next, you milk that cow- well, you're going to need a lot more than one cow because it takes about 131 gallons of milk to make a single wheel of parmesan cheese.
Now that you've got your milk, you stir it in a giant heated copper bowl, adding your rennet which will help the milk begin to curdle. You must continue stirring that milk nonstop for hours or else spoil the batch.
As the milk begins to separate and curdle, what will eventually become your cheese is deposited at the bottom of the pot, so you then use linen cloth to carefully scoop up all that delicious future Parmigiano Reggiano.
You don't want runny cheese, so you must carefully dry out the lump of formless cheese and get rid of as much moisture as possible before finally dumping it into a mold that will give it its final, wheel shape.
As you wait a full day for the cheese to set, you regularly switch out your linen cloth so that the cheese won't stick to it. Four days later you can finally remove your wheel of cheese from its mold, and bath it- for 19 days in a very salty brine.
The salty brine will help give the cheese flavor and fuel the chemical processes inside that will result in a delicious cheese one day. After its three-week brine bath, it's time to.
Well, give it even more time. Your wheel of Parmigiano cheese goes on a shelf in a carefully climate-controlled warehouse where it will sit for at least a year. If you're patient enough, you can mature your cheese even longer, and the more you wait the more you can expect your cheese to sell for.
Parmigiano cheese that's been aged for three years can sell for about $15 a pound if you live in Europe. If not, you can buy it on cibus direct for a whopping $30 a pound, but hey, free shipping. Real Parmigiano cheese is pretty serious business for Italy, so serious in fact that the process to create it is protected by law. Real Parmigiano cheese cannot legally contain more than three ingredients: salt, milk, and rennet.
We’re pretty sure here in America it’s illegal for food to only contain three ingredients and no chemical additives. Parmigiano-Reggiano also cannot legally be sold unless it has been aged at least one year. The cheese is such a commodity in Italy that some banks even use it as collateral- and that's not a hilarious joke about Italian stereotypes, it's the truth.
For years food fakers had been selling fake parmesan as the real deal, until Italy finally convinced the European Union to crack down and make it illegal for anyone to label their cheese as Parmigiano unless it was, you know, Parmigiano.
Here in the US though, food integrity would get in the way of unchecked capitalism, so our government pretty much ignored calls from Europe to enforce similar laws. After all, food safety and food integrity are for socialists, now please pass more of that powdered milk-soy chemical mystery cheese powder.
But what are you eating if this entire time you haven't been eating communist Parmigiano cheese? Well, there's no telling, because cheese manufacturers are allowed to get away with murder and oversight is rare if not non-existent. One of the few times the FDA looked into the matter though was in 2012, when it raided a Castle Cheese Inc. factory that made “100 percent real Parmigiano”.
What the inspectors found was that the factory was substituting most of the cheese for cellulose made out of the wood pulp. Don't feel bad though, because if you buy grated cheese, you're buying less than 40% of other cheese.
What's the rest of the ingredients? Well, again, wood pulp cellulose, as well as various chemical preservatives and flavor enhancers, cow hoof shavings.
There's no oversight, but one dead giveaway next time you're at the grocery store that you're not getting real cheese is that you'll find the word cheese isn't printed anywhere on the package. Kraft, probably one of the worst offenders, can't even label its products as cheese anymore, which is why that stuff you put on your burgers and sandwiches is just called “Kraft Singles”.
If you look closely at the labels of Kraft and other cheese producer's products you'll see the words “processed cheese”, “prepared cheese”, or “cheese food/product”. If you do see these words, drop that packet and run, because it's not real cheese but rather made from cheese.
Suggested Recipe: Chicken Parmigiana
Chicken parmigiana, or Parmigiano chicken, is a dish that's composed of breaded chicken breast engulfed in pureed tomatoes and mozzarella, Parmigiano, or Provolone cheddar. A cut of ham or bacon is added by choice. It is additionally referred to casually in the United States as chicken parm and in Australia as a parma, parmi, or party.
Preparation time: 20 min
Cooking time: 10 min
Yield: 6 servings
- Washed and spun dry salad greens for 6
- 4-6 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ½ tsp black pepper, freshly ground
- 2 eggs, extra-large
- 1 tbsp water
- 1 ¼ cups seasoned dry bread crumbs
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, plus extra for serving
- Unsalted butter
- Extra virgin olive oil by Cirio
- 1 recipe Lemon Vinaigrette, recipe below
- Beat the chicken breasts to make them 1/4-inch thick. You can use a rolling pin but preferably, a meat mallet.
Mix the salt, flour, and pepper on a plate. On the other plate, beat the eggs with 1 tbsp of water. On the third plate, mix the bread crumbs and ½ cup grated Parmigiano. Cover both sides of the chicken breasts with the flour mixture, then submerge both sides into the egg mixture and dip both sides in the breadcrumbs mixture while pressing lightly.
- In a large saute pan, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil and butter and cook 2 or 3 chicken breasts over medium-low heat, 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until cooked through. Add more extra virgin oil and Italian butter and cook the remaining chicken breasts. Throw in the salad greens with Lemon Vinaigrette. Place a pile of salad on each hot chicken breast. Serve it with your extra grated Parmigiano.
Lemon Vinaigrette: (Yield: 6 servings)
- Whisk together the evoo, salt, pepper, and lemon juice in a small bowl.
- Aida M