Sharp and sweet, nutty, with a unique gritty texture, Parmigiano-Reggiano is the king of Italian cheeses. Historical evidence shows that it was invented in Bibbiano, in the province of Reggio Emilia, and its production spread to the Parma and Modena areas. Already in the late 1200s, Parmigiano had reached its perfection and it has remained pretty much the same.Today, cheese masters continue making their cheese with only milk, rennet, salt, fire and art, abiding by the rigorous centuries-old methods and application of the technique. Parmigiano is made from raw cow's milk of the morning milking – cows fed only on grass or hay - mixed with the naturally skimmed milk of the previous evening's milking.
The milk is pumped into copper-lined vats (copper heats and cools quickly); starter natural whey culture is added, and the temperature is raised to 33–35 °C (91–95 °F). Calf rennet is added, and the mixture is left to curdle for 10–12 minutes.
The curd is then broken up into small pieces (around the size of rice grains). The temperature is then raised to 55 °C (131 °F) with careful control by the cheese-maker. The curd is left to settle for 45–60 minutes.
Then the compacted curd is collected in a piece of muslin before being divided in two and placed in molds. There are 1,100 liters (291 gallons) of milk per vat, producing two cheeses each. The curd making up each wheel at this point weighs around 45 kg (100 lb). The remaining whey in the vat was traditionally used to feed the pigs from which "Prosciutto di Parma" (cured Parma ham) was produced.
The cheese is put into a stainless steel, round form that is pulled tight with a spring-powered buckle so the cheese retains its wheel shape.
After a day or two, the buckle is released and a belt imprinted with the Parmigiano-Reggiano name, the plant's number, month and year of production is put around the cheese and the metal form is buckled tight again. The imprints take hold on the rind of the cheese in about a day and the wheel is then put into a brine bath to absorb salt for 20–25 days.
After brining, the wheels are transferred to the aging rooms in the plant for 12 months. Each cheese and the shelf underneath are cleaned every seven days, and the wheel is turned at this time.
After 12 months, the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano inspects each and every cheese. The cheese is tested by a master grader whose only instruments are a hammer and his ear. By tapping the wheel at various points, he can identify undesirable cracks and voids within the wheel. Those cheeses that pass the test are then heat branded on the rind with the Consorzio's logo. Those that do not pass the test have their rinds marked with lines or crosses all the way around to inform consumers that they are not getting top-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The wheels are aged an average of two years. When it is said that Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has been "a great cheese for at least nine centuries", it is not only highlighting its ancient origin. Indeed, it means pointing out that this cheese today is still identical to how it was eight centuries ago, having the same appearance and the same extraordinary fragrance, made in the same way, in the same places, with the same expert ritual gestures.
Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parmigiano-Reggiano