King of Cheese, part one

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The Foodie:

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The obsession began on April 4, 2007, back in Parma, Italy.

20120613-081137.jpgParma’s in Emilia Romagna, the region south of Milan and north of Florence where Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma are made. One of the things that makes Prosciutto di Parma so buttery is they feed the whey left from the production of Parmigiano to the pigs.

On a visit to a dairy, we watched the production, viewed the aging vault (photo above)— which held an estimated $1.7 million dollars — and tasted the most incredible cheese I’ve ever experienced. Just as Chianti wine can only be produced in Tuscany and sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France can only be called Champagne, Parmesan can only be called Parmigiano-Reggiano if it’s produced with a specific recipe and in the Emilia Romagna region.

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Parmigiano-Reggiano is aged a minimum of 12 months. Twelve-month cheese is the most common at the local grocer. Occasionally, you can find 24 month aged cheese and you will pay a premium for it because each wheel of cheese is dusted and flipped every seven days. There are approximately 26,000 wheels of cheese in the vault shown in this picture from our 2007 visit. That is very labor intensive.

By 36 months, the cheese develops crystals that give the cheese a slight crunch often mistaken for salt. The buttery flavor deepens and the color becomes a rich light caramel.

The density makes it difficult to grate so simply chipping a wedge and enjoying it alone is the best way to eat it. Don’t waste this cheese on other food. Eat it alone with a sip of chilled Prosecco.

I loved this cheese so much I purchased three kilos (sounds illegal, doesn’t it?) for €11/kilo and had them vacuum packed to bring back to the U.S. My calculations put it at $7.50 a pound.

The cheese was quickly gone and my search began in earnest. I checked high and low, city and state and found some in an Italian market in Boston. It wasn’t cheap but I didn’t care. I think I paid $21 a pound. Then, the trail went cold for three long Parmigiano-less years until I walked into Mario Batali’s Eataly.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two parts. The second part will come later today.)

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