Parmigiano Reggiano from red cows.
Parmigiano-Reggiano, its golden-yellow, craggy surface faintly flecked with cream-colored dots, its mellow flavors accented with crunch, is surely the greatest cheese in the world - totally unrelated to the powdered stuff in the green can or anything pre-grated. Parmigiano (Italians shorten the name) has a lengthy history. Although first-century Roman foodie Apicius mentions cheese from Parma, historians claim the cheese was born at a Benedictine monastery under the jurisdiction of Parma in the 11th century. In the 1300s, the writer Boccaccio fantasized about a paradise called Bengodi, where natives rolled pasta down mountainous slopes of grated Parmigiano.
Once upon a time, Parmigiano was made only from April into November, while cows grazed on sweet grass. Nowadays, the cows get no vacation. Production of the cheese is a complicated process. It begins with milk from two successive milkings. The "evening milk" rests overnight and is then skimmed before being mixed (in huge, conical, copper vessels) with "morning milk." With a little heat, a bit of whey from the previous batch, some rennin, and stirring, the milk's casein (a protein) begins to act like a net, capturing the remaining butterfat. Soon the milk coagulates. It's because the casein can't absorb all of the milk's fat that the evening batch is skimmed.
Parmigiano-Reggiano was traditionally made with milk from a red breed of cows, the Reggiana, but in the '50s most farmers switched to the familiar black-and-white, high-yield "milk-machine," the Frisona. In 1991 an experimental dairy called Notari returned to making cheese solely with Reggiana milk. Today, Notari's cows - Silvia, Natasha, Renata, and friends - supply milk for what I think is Italy's greatest Parmigiano. The secret is that Reggiana milk has more casein, so it holds more butterfat, resulting in a richer, big-flavored cheese that's almost youthful at the standard two years and capable of aging far longer than those made with other milks.
To find Notari's cheese, you might scan cheese rinds for 101, the dairy's number in the semi-secret Parmigiano-Reggiano code. Or ask at your most authentic Italian food shop. Or come to Reggio nell'Emilia yourself to purchase the cheese at the dairy!
Caseificio Notari, Istituto Agrario A Zanelli, via Fratelli Roselli, Reggio nell'Emilia, tel. 39-0522-321-344. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
December 1, 1997
2015 note: there is now a Consorium for red cow gastronomy: http://www.razzareggiana.it/ and https://www.facebook.com/consorziovaccherosse?rf=334818586582119