Just when we've all gotten our heads around the notion of eating locally, I'm here to tell you not to do it.
Not when it comes to cheese.
Not unless you live in Italy, in the small towns around Modena, Parma, Reggio-Emilia, and parts of Bologna and Mantova — the only part of the world where authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is produced by the 482 members of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano.
Founded in 1934, the Consorzio developed high standards for the cheese produced under its auspices, and every wheel of cheese that bears the Consorzio's seal of approval has been inspected several times to ensure that the cheese is of the highest quality. The cheesemaking process is fascinating, labor-intensive, and exacting.
From Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating, I learned that for centuries what we know as Parmigiano-Reggiano was simply the local cheese. In Parma it was known as "Parmigiano", in Reggio "Reggiano", and in Lodi, "Lodigiano". When cooks in Parma would go into a store to buy a couple of pounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano, they'd just order "a kilo of cheese". (No need to ask which cheese!)
The Consorzio has kept production small, yet economically viable. It takes 16 liters of milk to make one kilo of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and the average Parmigiano-Reggiano dairy makes only eight wheels of cheese a day. Even at 60 pounds a wheel, that's less than 500 pounds of cheese per day, about the same level of production as a small American cheesemaking farm.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is a medium-fat, dry cheese with a rich, sharp flavor. Made from skimmed or partially skimmed cow's milk, it has a hard, pale-golden rind and a straw-colored, somewhat grainy interior. Don't buy cheese without the rind, unless you see it hand-cut off a wheel that's stamped with the telltale dotted Parmigiano-Reggiano seal of identification.
Before you bring home a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano, find out its birthday. No kidding: each wheel is stamped with the month and year the cheese was made, and timing is everything; each season creates cheese with different qualities.
Summer cheese is more golden, because the cows are eating fresh grass, and it's said to be best for making pesto because it is the most sharp in flavor; spring cheese is drier because the milk at that time of year has less butterfat, and the cheese is harder to cut. Autumn cheese, the most balanced in flavor with a higher butterfat content, is the best for eating as is. Ask for cheese that's been aged through at least two summers. In summer, the cheese sweats, expelling excess moisture and concentrating the flavor.
When you do get your cheese home, you'll find a thousand uses for it, from shaving it on top of salads, to drizzling bite-sized chunks with honey for dessert — and don't forget indispensable pesto, fabulous lasagna, and soup made with the parm rind.
Risotto ai pompelmo (risotto with grapefruit)
Sounds weird, I know, but this is truly delicious. As always with risotti, make sure each individual ingredient is the best you can find. Adapted from Risotto, by Judith Barrett. Serves 4 as a first course.
7 cups chicken or vegetable stock, homemade or low-sodium storebought
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 small leek, white part only, finely chopped (approx. 1/2 cup)
3 Tbsp finely chopped celery
2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1-1/3 cups grapefruit juice, warmed (juice of 1 whole grapefruit)
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1-1/2 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
8 grapefruit sections, diced
Bring broth to a steady simmer. Warm grapefruit juice in the microwave. In a heavy casserole, heat butter and oil over moderate heat. Add leek and celery, and sauté 1-2 minutes, until the leek begins to soften but not brown. Add rice and stir, using a wooden spoon, for a minute to coat all the grains with the oil. Add the grapefruit juice and stir until completely absorbed. Begin to add the simmering broth, 1/2 cup at a time, reserving 1/4 cup to add at the end. After approximately 18 minutes, when the rice is tender but still firm, add reserved broth. Turn off the heat and immediately add remaining butter, cheese and parsley, and stir vigorously to combine with the rice. Serve immediately, garnished with diced grapefruit.
Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.