King of all cheese: Parmigiano Reggiano
By Anne L. Desjardins
The importance of eating authentic food
In 2011, one of the most important food trends will be to respect the integrity of the food we eat by choosing ingredients that are true to their nature and origins. Cheese is probably the best example. Why buy cheap copycat cheese when you can buy the real thing? For instance, who would pick industrial camembert made with milk by-products that might come from China when one could easily get real artisan cheese made in Normandy according to the original recipe at a price that is still very reasonable? By eating "real food" instead of their industrial counterpart we become involved in a wide movement that says: enough is enough! We want to know what's on our plate and we want its quality to be identifiable; we also want to support local communities and ancestral savoir-faire.
Invest in quality
In France they take their cheese very seriously, just as in Italy, where nothing beats the quality of a real Mozzarella di buffala, the fruitiness of a creamy Provolone, the pungent aroma of a good Romano or of an excellent Asiago cheese. They represent proof of the quality and originality of the terroir (the land, the specific climate and the foodstuff locals make on that land and climate). It is simply impossible to try to duplicate their unique flavour, texture and aroma elsewhere in the world. That's the beauty of eating local food; thanks to globalization, these unique products are now distributed throughout the world and easily available in chain supermarkets as well as in specialty shops.
The king of all: Parmigiano Reggiano!
Still in Italy, let's talk about another truly unique cheese: Parmigiano Reggiano. For a long time it's been victim of its own popularity to a point where many factories in Australia, Argentina, Germany and the United States have produced extremely cheap knockoff versions that are simply called "Parmesan" to avoid the protected designation of origin regulations for the real thing, Parmigiano Reggiano. Let's put it this way: this dry powder "cheese" is as close to Parmigiano Reggiano as "Kool-Aid" or "Tang" is to real orange juice…
A cheese that varies according to seasons
The real thing comes from the central region of Emilie Romagna in cities like Parma, Bologna or Modena (where balsamic vinegar comes from). Since 1996, it has been protected by a very strict system of regulations that guarantees its authenticity, at least in Europe, where the term "Parmesan" is not allowed. It is a hard cheese cooked but not pressed, made with raw milk from the region (which contains beneficial bacteria that give the cheese its specificity). This means that the cheese taste varies throughout the year because the cows are fed with herbs and flowers from the pasture, which change constantly depending of the seasons.
The sturdiest traveller
It takes no less than 145 gallons of partly skimmed raw milk to create one wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano. Each wheel weighs 38 kilograms (84 lb) and is aged in cellars for 1 to 4 years. Its grainy texture comes from that long aging process and also from the salt it contains, which also provides the complex flavour that is a bit on the sweet side, with a hint of nut aromas. For paddlers this dry cheese is a real gift because it is the most interesting travel pal. Simply wrap it in cheesecloth and in aluminum foil and you're good to take it with you for as long as you want. Avoid plastic by all means, which creates humidity and, ultimately, mold. Loaded with good quality proteins and with only 28% fat, Parmeggiano Reggiano is one of the skinniest cheeses around: 2 oz contain only 5.4 g of fat (3.4% saturated.), 7 g of proteins and 244 mg of calcium.
Although we love to cook with Parmigiano Reggiano and grate it over pastas, pizzas, risotto, salads and minestrone soup as a condiment, in Italy gourmets tend to eat it mostly as a table cheese with walnuts, sometimes adding a few drops of authentic 10 year old sweet and syrupy Modena Balsamico vinegar. Simply cut it roughly in big chunks with your camping knife and you're in for a fantastic treat! It goes extremely well with dried fruit (especially figs and pears) and with fresh apples and grapes. Add to this a few almonds and whole wheat crackers and you have a complete and satisfying meal in no time!
Try Parmigiano Reggiano in your morning scrambled eggs or omelet, as a garnish for your creamy oatmeal, on your pancake with a hint of maple syrup, as a filling for some Mejhoul dates, as a condiment for some grilled vegetables with a bit of pesto, as part of the gratin of a filling onion soup or simply with your favorite pasta and rice dishes and you will realize what you have been missing by not taking this wonderful and authentic cheese with you on every paddling trip. I also promise that you will throw away any cheap "Parmesan" ersatz, especially the dry ones!