“And there was a mountain of grated Parmigiano cheese, on which people were making nothing but maccheroni and raviolis.” – Giovanni Boccaccio, Decamerone, 1351
When we arrived at the Consorzio Vacche Rosse, our guide, Luca Bedogni, was patiently waiting. We put on white paper caps and booties and began our education. Luca was a very knowledgeable and affable young man.
Making the cheese is under the total control of a single master cheese maker who is assisted by a half-dozen, or so, co-workers. They were all dressed in white hats, shirts, pants, aprons, and boots and were in constant motion. Since cows don’t recognize holidays, the cheese maker has little, if any, time off. He even has his own apartment on site.
Red Cow Parmigiano Reggiano is produced from milk delivered twice a day from over 25 dairy farmers, the first from an early morning milking and the second from an evening milking. It is delivered during the coolest hours to avoid the risk of unwanted fermentation.
The milk obtained from the evening milking is skimmed and added to the morning milk in huge copper cauldrons that hold over 1200 pounds of milk (enough for two wheels of cheese). About fourteen liters of milk produce one kilo of matured cheese.
We watched the cheese maker break the curd into small granules – like grains of rice, to separate the semisolid curd from the liquid whey (Since Miss Muffet was off chasing a rude spider, we were able to sample some of her fresh curds – warm and sweet.) The cheese was cooked at 55 – 56° C. with constant stirring.
The cheese maker used a wooden shovel and helpers to hand wrap the cooked curd in a permeable hemp cloth bag.
Every bag contained about 90 kilos of curd, enough for two wheels of cheese.
Each wheel, in its own bag, was placed in a round mold to give the final shape.
Inside this mold was a silicone band with the engraved cheese factory registration number, the month and the year of production, the PDO mark and the typical dotted inscription with the name Parmigiano Reggiano – a name that can be read on the rind of every piece of cheese.
Luca explained that the wheels are soaked (and periodically punched down by hand) in large vats containing a water/salt solution for about 20 days to absorb salt – the only preservative that can be added to Parmigiano Reggiano. This step gives the cheese its identifiable taste.
To help form the rind and dry the cheese, each wheel is matured in an adjacent farmhouse where the cheese is stored on wooden racks that can support 100 wheels. After about a year, every wheel is reviewed by experts of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. By tapping the rind with a special little hammer, inspectors can detect cracks and holes—and those defective cheeses are marked as inferior quality. Approved wheels are then moved into a temperature and humidity controlled maturation storehouse. For Reggiano cheese, this period lasts more than two years.
After additional certification by experts from the Consorzio Vacche Rosse, the cheese can receive the brand of the Red Cows. At this time, the cheese will be perfectly matured with its superior taste and color.
After touring the cheese making operations, we visited a barn behind the factory to see some of the famous Red Cows. They are beautiful animals, reminiscent of Guernseys. Their diet consists of fresh grass in summer, trucked down from the mountains, and hay in the winter from the same grass. There are prohibitions against the use of any GMO cereals and against the use of any method to force production. That is why there are still productive cows over ten years old – uncommon in other breeds. The cows we saw had a lot of free movement – we even observed young calves walking amongst the older cows.
After our tour, we visited their shop where Luca gave us tastes of the cheeses, grouped by ages of 24-30 months, 30-40 months, and over 40 months. Even the 24-30 month cheese with its distinctive color has a deep, intense, fine texture with a rich spice and dried-fruit taste – very different from the more moist and crumbly pale ivory 18-month Parmesan found elsewhere. It has been voted as the winner of the First Absolute Grand Prix in the hard cheese category, and of all world cheeses. We also sampled their ricotta which is savory and very tasty. We bought enough vacuum sealed packages of cheese to fill up half my suitcase. I am in love with Red Cow Parmigiano Reggiano!
To purchase Vacche Rosse Parmigiano Reggiano click here.