Parmigiano Reggiano and its history

Eight centuries of nobility – from the XIIIth century to the present

Parmigiano Reeggiano DOP

When they talk about the fact that Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is “for at least eight centuries, a great cheese”, they not only affirm it’s very ancient origin, what is evident is the fact that this cheese is today made exactly in the same way as it was a good eight centuries ago, with the same appearance and the same extraordinary fragrance, made in the same way, in the same places with the same rituals of expert’s hands.

Historical testimonies show that as far back as 1200-1300, Parmigiano Reggiano had reached that perfect icon that has remained essentially unchanged up to the present time. This means that the cheese production of the area surely has much older origins, because of the fact that one could reasonably suppose the peculiar characteristics of the product were reached much earlier.

The standard of the Parmigiano Reggiano is in fact an evolution of ancient and extraordinary cheeses, cited by Latin authors, determined by constant perfecting of the technical aspects of cheese making. The first cheese makers, who obtained the traditional markings from their original forms, understood full well that those markings were unique and made the product one that cannot be copied; they had created a work of art, and as wise men, were satisfied by the excellence achieved.

The effort and the dedication had been rewarded; but as per every creative effort, God’s part “ was not  missing”. As a matter of fact, other elements, independent of man’s hands, contributed to produce the perfect results. Those are elements that rarely can be found elsewhere and never in duplicated composition: the geological formation of the land, the special breeding of the cows, that calculated combination of an environment which is geo-agricultural, as well as human quality, all combine to make the production of a prized milk, different from other areas that are geographically close, the only milk that can give origin to an exceptional cheese, capable of very slow ageing that charge it with inimitable tastes.

We must give credit to the men for having conserved proudly over the centuries, the secrets of the nobility of the Parmigiano Reggiano and to not have caved in, even today – when all is technology and automation – to the temptation of simplifying the process. So today, the cheese makers, as it once was, continue in their struggle and with risk. They are obstinate in their loyalty and pride in making their cheese, with only milk, rennet, with fire and with art and perseverance in the strict observance of their century old methods and always applying a technique that is the fruit of their particular vocation and mature experience.

According to Platina, a cremonese humanist of the ‘400s: “there are two cheeses today in Italy that vie for first prize: the “marzolino”, so called by the Etruscans because it is made in Etruria in the month of March and Parmigiano, in the cisalpine region, which can also be called “maggengo”, from month of May”. Another quote is taken from a book of Francesco Maria Grapaldo, with passages taken from Vitruvio and other Latin authors.

This is how they are translated: “Parmigiano cheese: in our times, in Italy, a first prize for quality is given to Parmigiano cheese, while a long time ago, pride had it for the abundance of wool. From this the couplet..I am the nobil fruit of the milk of Parma ..”. It is not necessary to do laborious research in our libraries in order to collect documents on the ancient origin of Parmigiano Reggiano.

One of the most significant passages is found in the Decameron and there is no doubt – that the words used and which Maso refers to describe Parmigiano, to Calandrino, town of Bengodi, is exactly the same cheese, that today prides itself with the Parmigiano Reggiano name. The quote is as follows: “and there was a mountain of grated Parmigiano cheese, upon which were people, that nothing else was doing, but for maccheroni and ravioli”, whit another good one, that once cooked they rolled them in cheese so as to make them tastier.

So is the tradition of dressing pasta with Parmigiano cheese, once of ancient tradition, as in the testimony of Friar Saltimbene in 1500 in his “The Chronicles”. We owe to the testimony of the XVI th for affirming “in this times, the first prize is given to Italy for Parmigiano Reggiano, while a while ago, it was given for abundance of wool.” In 1656, Francesco Serra in his dictionary synonyms says that “the name of cheeses derive from places where they produce it best; such as Parmigiano, which takes its name from the place and from the goodness” (meaning from the place in which it is really good). One is taken by the curiosity of the mentioning of the celebrated Cristoforo di Messisbugo, describing in one of his recipe-books, the private dinner, which he had orgered to be prepared in his house, January 17 th , 1543.

Parmigiano Reggiano aging

It was a small dinner, among friends, as we would say today, with about 20 people and unpretentious (Sir Cristoforo emphasizes: “without veal and without capons”) but with “fruit and confections”, meaning dessert, which included “6 plates of Parmigiano cheese” besides all the rest. Also one must note the refinement of serving Parmigiano Reggiano with fresh grapes and pears: this combination of cheese and fruit (not only pears and grapes but also apples, peaches, nuts, figs, kiwi etc.) is being rediscovered today as the ending of dinner or as a dessert for gourmet.

There are many indirect testimonials, such as, for example, those referred in various Moliere biographers: in his old age, the great writer of comedy nourished himself primarily with Parmigiano. He was already in tune with the modern dietary precepts which recommend this cheese to babies as well as to the elderly due to its high nutritive power, for its digestibility and for the special richness in calcium and phosphorous, which is easily assimilated. But the most direct testimonials come from the manuscripts and the archives of Reggio Emilia, Parma and in particular those from the export of goods in which they document large shipments of Parmigiano Reggiano to all of civilized Europe .

There are many episodes to mention, one amongst all, a passage from a letter from “The papers of the Elderly of Reggio Emilia”, dated January 21 st , 1536. These gentlemen, having collected the complaints of “A. Patacino, our citizen”, protest politely, because “attributing Parmigiano Reggiano to Venice ”, they force them to pay the duty”. Whit its interesting twist in timing, we can close our choice of quotes.

Obviously, even the recent history of Parmigiano Reggiano has its important chapters; it is the history of how 600 small artisan dairies from the delimited zone (that represent about nine thousand agriculturists who produce milk), have received recognition from the law, because of their determination to preserve without alteration, the working methods and the highest level of quality production; it is the history that shows how the quality guarantee of genuine Parmigiano Reggiano, is today, absolute, as per the enforcement of precise laws, applied with rigid self discipline as to conformity and with rigorous control.

From Azienda Agricola Villa Aiola