On Location: Caseificio San Paolo Parmigiano-Reggiano

A visit to northern Italy wouldn’t be complete without seeing the production of Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of Italian cheeses. This week, we visited Caseificio San Paolo, a cooperative made up of 13 dairy farmers in the province of Modena. Twelve of the farmers milk about 70 cows, while one milks about 1,000 cows. All house their animals in freestall barns and feed them hay and grains.

Two men: lead Cheesemaker Gimmi Ambrogi, who continually had an unlit cigarette perched perilously on his lips, and dairy farmer Fabrizio Consoli, who milks 70 Friesians, gave us a tour of their cheese plant, where 18 small copper vats are each used to produce two wheels of raw milk, 83-pound wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano starting each week day at 6:30 a.m.

Whole milk from the delivery of morning milk is added to part-skim milk from the previous evening, made by holding the delivery of evening milk in large shallow stainless steel tables to allow the cream to separate. Natural whey culture is added, and the milk is heated. Calf rennet is then added, and the mixture is left to curdle for 10 to 12 minutes. Cheesemakers then use a special circular cheese knife to cut the curd into small pieces, and heat the mass again.

After being left to settle for about 45 minutes, the curd is scooped up in a piece of cloth and divided in two. Because we arrived a little late, Ambrogi demonstrated the technique for us. The curd is then placed in plastic molds and flipped every two hours.

The next day, the cheese is put into a stainless steel forms that are tightened with a spring-powered latch. After two days, the latch is released and a long plastic belt imprinted with the Parmigiano-Reggiano name, the plant number, and month and year of production is put around the cheese and the metal form is latched tight again.

After three days, each wheel is put into brine to absorb salt for 20 days. The brine is changed every 3-4 months by draining half the liquid from each tub and adding new saltwater. Wheels are rotated about 1/8 turn each day so that all part of the wheel gets soaked. On the day we visited, about 1,200 wheels were soaking in brine.

After brining, the wheels are moved to aging rooms in the plant for 12 months, where each is placed on wooden shelves. Each cheese and shelf is cleaned robotically every seven days, and the cheese is also flipped at that time.

At one year of age, a master grader from the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano inspects each and every wheel of cheese, using a hammer to tap the wheel at various locations, listening for any defect cracks in the wheel. The cheeses that pass are then heat branded on the rind with the Consorzio’s logo. Failed wheels are marked with lines or crosses and are generally sold for grating.

Caseificio San Paolo is currently aging 40,000 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The cooperative owns several aging warehouses in the Emilia-Romagna region.

After the tour, we were lucky enough to enjoy a tasting right of wheels that were 18-, 24- and 36-months of age. Ambrogi even sprinkled the 36-month with balsamic vinegar for us, which was amazing.

Many thanks to all the folks at Caseificio San Paolo for your hospitality and cheese tasting!

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

On Location: Quattro Portoni Caseificio Water Buffalo Dairy in Italy

Alert readers are expecting today’s blog to be on Beppino Occelli in Valcasotto, Italy, and I do promise that will be coming. But it’s not every day that I visit a water buffalo farm, and I can’t wait to share my excitement. So here we go!

It had been three years since I last visited and wrote about Dubi Ayalon’s water buffalo farm near Plain, Wisconsin, but the memory of a giant snorting bull with a ring in his nose trotting menacingly toward me was front of mind when we pulled into the Quattro Portoni Caseificio water buffalo dairy yesterday near Cologno al Serio, Italy.

Visiting a working water buffalo dairy was high on my list of to-dos when I began planning this year’s Wisconsin Cheese Originals’ cheese and wine tour of northern Italy. While almost all Mozzarella di Bufala is made in southern Italy as part of the Government Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP, there are a couple of buffalo dairies in northern Italy. We visited the farm of the Gritti family, who in 2000, decided get off the commodity milk train, sold their herd of Friesian cows that they had milked since 1982, switched to water buffalo, and added value to their farm by building a farmstead creamery.

Brothers Bruno and Alfio Gritti, along with their wives, Elena and Marina, and their beautiful daughters – two in graduate school to become doctors, and the third to be a lawyer – today make their own cheese and yogurt from water buffalo milk and operate an on-farm retail store. Bruno is the cheesemaker and Alfio is the herdsman, but the whole family is involved either through marketing, sales or just doing chores. The entire family was on hand to enthusiastically give us a spectacular tour of their family farm, followed by a tasting of nearly a dozen cheeses they make on site.

First of all, let me just say that water buffalo are not necessarily attractive creatures. They naturally look a little mean, and because they have lightening-quick reflexes, their sudden movements can make you think are going to trample and eat you. This of course is not the case, not only because they are herbivores, but also because the genetics of breeding calm, gentle water buffalo has been underway in Italy for hundreds of years.

The Gritti family has 900 water buffalo and milk the cows, which live in large freestall barns, twice a day in a double-15 parlor. Each cow gives, on average, about 7 liters, or almost two gallons of milk a day. This is incredibly low compared to Holstein cows, who think nothing of pumping out six to nine gallons a day. Water buffalo, however, live and give milk longer than the average U.S. dairy cow, with the Gritti’s buffalo averaging 10 to 12 lactations (they just sold a cow last week that was a whopping 21 years of age). Cows must get pregnant to give milk, and in the dairy industry, we measure a cow’s life span by how often they get pregnant. So that means the average water buffalo on the Gritti farm gives birth to 10 to 12 calves over the course of 10 to 12 years (their gestation period is 10 months). This is far longer than the average U.S. Holstein cow who lives to perhaps see four lactations in her productive lifetime.

We were lucky to see an hour-old newborn calf while at the farm. It stood for the first time while we were watching, and as we were cheering, promptly teetered on its new-found legs and fell down. We left it to bond with its mother and aunts (the buffalo are left to give birth in small groups of cows to calm them) and walked to the calf pens, where calves are kept until they are about one week old and are bottle-fed with buckets. After one week, they move to another pen, and learn how to eat corn and grain on their own. That takes about another 3 weeks. They are then moved in groups to larger pens, and gradually moved to successive pens as they age. The males are sold at 14 months for meat, and desirable females are kept as heifers to breed and give birth when they are two years old. The Gritti family uses both bulls and artificial insemination to impregnate the cows.

Anyone who has been on a dairy farm knows there are two main outputs to cows: milk and manure. In this case, the manure is hauled to a local, cooperative manure digestor, where the methane is converted into electricity. Meanwhile, the milk is pumped via an underground pipeline to the cheese plant and creamery across the road. There, all of the farm’s milk – 500,000 liters, or more than 1 million pounds a years – is transformed into an array of award-winning buffalo milk cheeses and yogurt.

Bruno explained to us that he did not necessarily grow up wanting to become a cheesemaker, but he is the kind of man who likes a challenge, and isn’t afraid to try something new. After the family decided to move forward with water buffalo, he went back to school and took a short course in Lombardy in cheesemaking. He then partnered with a cheese technician from Piedmont for six months, working on cheese recipes and to perfect the cheesemaking process.

Then he hired two young men who had just graduated from university in Milan with degrees in dairy science and trained them to be his full-time cheesemakers. In Italy, teenagers can go to a special high school to learn practical cheesemaking skills, but Bruno was not interested in hiring someone with experience.

“I was looking for someone with a virgin mind when it came to making cheese,” Bruno said. “We were doing something completely different here, and I wanted someone who could think differently.” The plan worked, as the two men are still on board as full-time cheesemakers, and the farm now has an employee roster of 12 people.

Because the farm is located outside the official Government Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP region, the Grittis make only enough fresh mozzarella to sell locally. What they really focus on is creating aged cheeses from buffalo milk that are traditionally made with cow’s milk. Their most famous cheese is Blu di Bufala, which won the Best Italian Cheese award at the 2012 World Cheese Awards. A blue-veined cheese with square shape and a dry and wrinkly crust, it is mild and creamy, showcasing the natural sweetness of water buffalo milk.

Another well-known cheese is Quadrello, a soft cheese, made according to the local Bergamo region’s traditional recipe for washed-rind cheese. The paste is straw-yellow in color, with small holes, elastic and soft especially near the crust. The Grittis also makes Crescenza, Ricotta, Caciocavvalo, Scamorza and a wide variety of what we usually think to be cow’s milk cheeses using water buffalo milk. Aging takes place in modern, above-ground, temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms.

All but one cheese, Granbu, a semi-hard cheese made in a tall wheel that is similar in texture and flavor to the Swiss Sbrinz, are made using pasteurized milk. Sixty percent of the cheese production is exported, primarily to Germany, France and Singapore. About 25 percent is exported to the United States, where it is distributed exclusively through Forever Cheese in New York. Many of Quattro Portoni Caseificio cheeses are available in Whole Foods stores in Chicago.

Many thanks to the entire Gritti family for their amazing hospitality, tour and tasting! And tomorrow – I promise – a look inside the underground Beppino Occelli cheese aging caves.
All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

On Location: Luigi Guffanti Formaggi per Tradizione in Italy

I’m not going to lie: when third generation affineur Carlo Fiori Guffanti led us through a glass door, down a series of steps, and into the underground aging cellars of the renowned Luigi Guffanti affineur house of hanging provolone, pecorino, parmigiano reggiano and rounds of cheeses I had only ever seen in books, I started to cry. Even in a room full of 20 members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals on the first day of a 10-day Grand Cheese Tour of Northern Italy, I could not contain the emotion of being in a room where so much history, care and passion of this simple, but oh-so-complex thing we call cheese, has taken place over the course of 150 years.

It could be that we arrived after 36 hours of traveling via delayed planes, bus and automobile, or that my luggage was “untraceable” via British Airways, or that I was facing the fact I’d be wearing the same clothes I left home in for days, but the emotion that cheese can elicit always surprises me. And Carlo Fiori Guffanti, our tour guide for a 2-hour visit to one of the most famous aging houses of Europe summed it up best: “Cheese is easy, but not simple.”

An exceptionally kind, small man with bright eyes, fluent in Italian, French and German, but halting English, Carlo Fiori knows cheese. His grandfather, Luigi Guffanti, began to season Gorgonzola in 1876 in an abandoned silver mine in Valganna, in the Varese province of the Lombardy region of northern Italy. With the mine’s consistent year-round temperature and humidity, those first Guffanti cheeses matured so well that Luigi quickly cornered the markets. His sons, Carlo and Mario, at the beginning of the 1900′s, exported as far as Argentina and California, where people of the Piedmont and Lombardy had emigrated.

Today, Carlo Fiori Guffanti is the elder of two upcoming Guffanti generations set to take over an operation aging 180 types of cheese. And if he teaches them half of what he taught us over the course of two hours, the Guffanti house of cheese will endure forever.

Here’s how our tour started: with the stomach of a goat, aged five years, cut into tiny pieces for us to eat. It turns out that goat stomach tastes a lot like goat cheese, except stronger. Carlo’s point: cheese starts with basic ingredients: milk, enzymes taken from the stomach of an animal, cultures and salt.

“Cheese was not invented, it was discovered. It is the result of men who discovered that instead of eating animals for protein, they could have them eat green grass in the summer, hay in the winter, and then use their milk to make a new kind of protein: cheese,” Carlo told us. “Cheese is the only way man has found to preserve milk, and it has changed the world.”

At that moment, he brought out a board of nearly a dozen Robiola cheese rounds, one of Guffanti’s more famous cheeses. They ranged in age from just right to really scary, but Carlo’s point was that they were all still edible. “Cheese never dies. It just changes,” he said. I made the mistake of referring to him as an amazing “affineur,” and he quickly corrected me that there is no word in Italian for a man who ages cheese for a living. “Affineur” is French. The closest words are “stagionatura”, which means seasoning, or “affinate”, which means refined, or improved. I guess perhaps Carlo is an “affinater” which is a word I pretty much just made up.

After leading us through a series of caves, or cheese aging rooms containing some of the most beautiful cheeses I’ve ever seen, including: Pecorino Foglie, a pressed sheep’s milk cheese from Tuscany, wrapped in walnut leaves and rubbed daily with olive oil; Piacentinu Ennese DOP, a  sheep’s milk cheese from Sicilia infused with saffron and black peppercorns, and Quartirolo Lombardo DOP, a rectangular cheese similar to Tallegio, but made with milk from the end of summer, Carlo led us down a hallway lined with Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padana, and a wooden shelf of wheels marked with names and dates. These cheeses had all been made in honor of the birth of his nephews, and will be eaten on a special occasion in the boys’ lives. “This is our tradition,” Carlo said.

After the tour, it was time to go upstairs. “I have shown you the cheeses. Now they will speak for themselves,” Carlo told us. And they did. The Guffanti staff had set up an impressive spread of more than a dozen Guffanti aged cheeses, including a one-year aged Gorgonzla Piccante, the cheese that first put Luigi Guffanti on the map.

After we were nearly done, Carlo brought out two more cheeses: my favorite, Robiolo, and a special treat: 2-year Comte, cut from a series of wheels we had drooled over in the aging rooms.

Then it was time to say goodbye. Many cheek kisses and thank you’s later, I talked Carlo into signing the brim of the Luigi Guffanti hat I had bought in the cheese shop. “Wear it the next time you come to see me,” he said with a smile. Will do.

Next up: Bra Cheese Fair and checking off another item on Jeanne’s bucket list.

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.