Parmigiano, or Parmesan , is the most famous of all the Grana (or hard, grainy) cheeses which are produced in northern and central Italy, and only grana that is made around the town of Parma can actually be called Parmigiano Reggiano.
The clue is in the name
Parmigiano Reggiano has been made in the region for at least 700 years, with traditional production methods passed down through the generations and up until World War II it came from Vacche Rosso, or Red cows, a breed also known as Reggiana and from which Parmigiano gets its name. They are the original breed of cows native to northern Italy, known for their distinctive red coats – their milk has higher butterfat content and is particularly rich in calcium and protein. It also possesses the best cheese making qualities as it coagulates quicker and makes a more consistent curd. Once made into cheese it can be aged longer than regular parmigiano, and this all results in a great depth of flavour, with the cheese tasting creamier with intense nuttiness and grass notes.
As with many things, though, high quality means a naturally low yield, and sadly in recent times industrialisation meant they were slowly replaced by plain old black and white Friesian cows which were much more productive, yielding more milk. By the early-1980’s the Reggiana were on the verge of extinction, with only 900 cows left.
Quality & consistency comes at a cost
Today there are around 600 caselli, or cheese producers, in the region whose cheeses are all periodically monitored as they mature by the Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano, the official group responsible for certifying quality of production.
In 1955 the consortium set down regulations governing how the cheese must be made. Today very few cows are out in pastures grazing – instead special grasses are grown and fed to them in the barns where they are confined. And because the feed is the same for almost all the cows, the cheese is far more uniform than anything available before the regulations were set down.
After 12 months, a master grader from the Consorzio tests each and every cheese, using only a special little hammer and his ear. By tapping the wheel at various points, he can identify any undesirable cracks and voids within the wheel which mean the cheese will not mature properly. Only the cheeses that pass the test are then fire branded on the rind with the Consorzio’s logo and have the right to be called Parmigiano Reggiano.
While this raised standards, drove consistency, and got rid of the really poor cheeses, some would say it has got rid of the really great ones too. The cheese has lost much of its artisan nature, in which, provided the base quality is there, natural variability can be celebrated.
Revival of the Vacche Rosso – the Red Cow
In the early 1980’s, however, a revival began amongst a few very small family run farms who recognised what was on the brink of being lost. More concerned with quality than quantity they first stabilised and then, thanks in part to the Slow Food movement, grew the overall herd to 2,000 cattle today.
In the same way Parmigiano Reggiano is different to the more industrial Grana Padano, so Red Cow is the Rolls Royce of Parmigiano and this is recognised by the expression ‘Vacche rosse – razza reggiana’ which is fire-branded on their surface. Annual production from the 38 farms adds up to only around 14,000 wheels of cheese each year, or 0.4% of total Parmigiano production.
Epicora’s Producer : Matteo Catellani
Matteo Catellani is a 3rd generation artisan farmer who now runs the farm started by his great grandfather in 1936 with a dozen cows. His family have always only reared red cows, “Even when to breed these animals was mocked,” says Matteo, and in 1991 the Catellani brothers helped to lead the revival as founder members of the CVPARR – a dairy co-operative whose aim was to help save the breed. Today he has 180 cows and continues to stand over the entire production and aging process to ensure the quality of every cheese.
Red Cow Parmigiano is generally aged for at least 24 months (compared to 12 months for regular Parmigiano Reggiano), with the best being aged for up to 36 or even longer. The extra aging yields a cheese with a deeper straw colour than regular Parmigiano Parmesan. The texture is creamier and its taste is intense – richer and longer than most Parmigianos, with uniquely nutty, fruity notes, and traces of wild grasses.
Keep your regular parmigiano for more everyday dishes like chicken parmesan. Whilst Red Cow can still be used for grating and finishing a special pasta dish such as tagliolini al tartufo bianco it should not be overwhelmed, so try using as the main ingredient in a simple, but delicious parmigiano risotto, or best of all serve on its own, after a meal with a good glass of red wine and perhaps a little mostardo or top quality balsamic to match.
Once we tasted Red Cow Parmigiano, we had to have it in our range and we hope you will be as thrilled as we are once you have tried it too.