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.