Parmigiano Reggiano: History, Information, Interesting Facts

Parmigiano Reggiano: history, info, interesting facts


It’s not possible to really understand the true value of a specialty like Parmigiano Reggiano, one of the most famous and appreciated cheeses in the world, without knowing its history, more than 900 years long, its places, located in one of the most historic Italian regions, its unique ingredients and, not least, its method of preparation. This method has remained unchanged for centuries: its secrets are still today the pride of the ‘Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano’.

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese: the real Parmesan (crt-01)


What is Parmigiano Reggiano?

Parmigiano Reggiano is a ‘hard paste’ cheese, characterized by low water content and an aging period that can vary from a minimum of 12 months to well over 30. This specialty is produced in the provinces of the Italian cities of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua (on the right of the Po river) and Bologna (on the left of the Reno river). It’s the fruit of a very ancient tradition, begun in the Middle Ages by Benedictine and Cistercian monks. Both the quality of its ingredients and the way it’s prepared have remained unchanged over time: not surprisingly, Parmigiano Reggiano has been awarded the PDO Denomination, whose main purpose is to protect its unique features.

The pastures of Parmigiano Reggiano (crt-01)


The history of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Parmigiano Reggiano: merchant (crt-01)

The origins of Parmigiano Reggiano date back, more or less, to the 12th Century, that is to say to the Middle Ages. According to some sources, they could be even older.
The first makers of this cheese were the Benedictines and Cistercians monks of the monasteries located in the plains around the cities of Parma and Reggio Emilia. Thanks to the excellent milk produced in the local pastures and to the salt coming from the famous salt pans of Salsomaggiore, these monks gave life to a type of food both appetizing and nutritious that, at the same time, could be preserved: this was a very precious feature, especially at that time.


Parmigiano Reggiano: Duke Ranuccio I Farnese (img-02)

It should therefore not surprise the great success that this specialty immediately achieved: the ‘caseus parmensis’ (first name of Parmigiano Reggiano), thanks to its relative ease of transport, quite soon began to be sold all around Italy (*1) and progressively in the rest of Europe. Over the years, the monks lost their exclusivity in the production of this cheese, being initially emulated by rich aristocratic families, then by simple citizens with a strong artisan vocation (*3). There are many proofs of the great success of the ‘Parma cheese’ on the tables of the Renaissance banquets. It’s, therefore, no coincidence that in 1612, for the first time, the main features of this specialty were certified in a document (*4) strongly supported by the Duke Ranuccio I Farnese, who was determined to protect one of the leading products of his land.

This cheese is synonymous with tradition: suffice to say that its preparation method has remained unchanged for centuries, with the sole exception of the use of whey and steam heating at the beginning of the 1900s
The desire for protection triggered by the Duke of Parma gradually grew to culminate in the foundation, in 1954, of the ‘Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano’.

*1: As proven by a Genoese notarial deed dating back to 1254.
*2: Many documents show its presence in Germany, France, Spain and Flanders.
*3: This passage culminated in the Napoleonic era with the abolition of ecclesiastical possessions.
*4: Considering its content, it’s the true ancestor of the modern product specification document.

Parmigiano Reggiano, the food of the monks (crt-01)

WebFoodCulture: the most typical specialties, the most traditional restaurants and producers.

The most typical specialties, the most traditional restaurants and producers.


How Parmigiano is made?

Parmigiano Reggiano belongs to the category of ‘hard cheeses’: these are characterized by a low water content (less than 35% / 40%) and a seasoning that, sometimes, can be very long. Here follows the steps to produce this dairy specialty (click here for the printable version):

The milk of Parmigiano Reggiano (crt-01) The milk of Parmigiano Reggiano (crt-01)

01. The skimmed milk from the milking of the previous evening, together with that of the morning milking is poured in large copper boilers. Veal rennet and whey are added.

Parmigiano: the ‘curd’ and the ‘spino’ (crt-01) Parmigiano: the ‘curd’ and the ‘spino’ (crt-01)

02. In about ten minutes the milk condenses forming the ‘curd’. Skillful cheese artisans, using an instrument known as ‘spino’, fragment the curd into small grains.

Parmigiano Reggiano takes shape (crt-01) Parmigiano Reggiano takes shape (crt-01)

03. A slow cooking phase begins, using a temperature that can reach 55 degrees. The curd condenses into a fairly compact mass that slowly reaches the bottom of the cauldron.

Parmigiano in the ‘mold’ (crt-01) Parmigiano in the ‘mold’ (crt-01)

04. The cheesemakers extract this mass and cut it in two. These portions are wrapped in a cloth to drain them and then placed in a mold that gives them the typical cylindrical shape.

A casein plate for Parmigiano Reggiano (crt-01) A casein plate for Parmigiano Reggiano (crt-01)

05. A casein plate is inserted: this shows a progressive number identifying the wheel. Additional identifiers are engraved on the edge of the wheel using a special marking band.

The wheels rest in a salt and water solution (crt-01) The wheels rest in a salt and water solution (crt-01)

06. The wheels are immersed in brine, a solution of water and salt. The salt slowly penetrates the cheese. The seasoning begins: it will last at least 12 months.

The curd, once compacted, is extracted (crt-01)


The seasoning.

La stagionatura del Parmigiano Reggiano (crt-01)

Parmigiano Reggiano acquires much of its personality during its seasoning, this takes place in silent places, where hundreds of wheels quietly rest, neatly arranged on long wooden shelves.
This seasoning, according to the product specification document, must last at least 12 months: in this regard, it’s important to note that this particular cheese starts to give its best after two years.


The selection of Parmigiano cheese.

The ‘battitore’ examines the wheel of Parmigiano (crt-01)

Before being commercialized, the wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano undergo a long and careful selection to guarantee the highest quality level.
This selection is conducted by the ‘battitore’ (‘beater’), an expert not very different from the sommelier, who performs a series of tests on each wheel using particular tools.
For example, the ‘battitura’ (‘beating’), is performed with a small ‘percussion hammer’ and is useful to evaluate the internal structure of the wheel.

According to the results of these tests, Parmigiano Reggiano is classified as follows:
Prima categoria (First category): This cheese has no defects. Consumers can easily distinguish it because the wheel appears intact, including the marks on its surface.
‘Mezzano’: This cheese has minor or medium imperfections. In this case, the side of the wheel is marked with horizontal fissures. This cheese is not suitable for seasoning but is perfect when ‘fresh’.
‘Scarto’ (‘Scrap’): This cheese has too many defects to be sold. The side of the wheel is scraped to erase any sign.

Parmigiano Reggiano: Percussion hammer, screw needle and tassello (crt-01)


The marks of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Parmigiano Reggiano: brand (crt-01)

Many signs make it possible to easily distinguish an original wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano. Among the most evident, the marks impressed along its entire side (*1) using the ‘marking band’ (*2). Here follows some of them:

  • The name PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO marked in dots;
  • The words ‘DOP’ and ‘Consorzio Tutela’;
  • The serial number;
  • The production date;

There is also a casein plate on the surface, this shows: an alphanumeric identification code, a special label for optical readers and the initials CFPR (Consorzio Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano).
Read more

The wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano that, after extensive tests, prove to be of particular value, can boast of the brands PREMIUM or EXPORT (*3).

*1: The ‘scanso’.
*2: The ‘marking band’ (‘fascera marchiante’) is a band with raised characters: these are imprinted on the cheese when it’s still soft.
*3: Those that have minor or medium imperfections can be distinguished thanks to horizontal fissures engraved on the side of the wheel.

Parmigiano Reggiano: the seasoning (crt-01)


Parmigiano Reggiano vs Parmesan.

Parmigiano Reggiano vs. Parmesan (crt-01)

Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the most famous and appreciated cheeses in the world since the Middle Ages. Such a tradition makes this product unique and inimitable, adding some very peculiar characteristics: these derive, for example, from the historical skill of its makers and the quality of its ingredients. Factors indissolubly binding this specialty to its territory.
Outside Europe, Parmigiano Reggiano is often known as ‘Parmesan’: in many states, this name often indicates also products that sometimes are just ‘inspired’ by the original.
Read more

Although some of these cheeses may be of good quality, they’re inevitably different, starting with the taste. Moreover, as it’s easy to understand by reading this article, they don’t and will never have the traits of a specialty that, not surprisingly, is considered by many the ‘King of Cheeses’. Exploiting the ambiguity of the name ‘Parmesan’ to lure unaware consumers is a smart expedient that certainly pays off, but is irremediably destined to fail at the first bite of the real Parmigiano.

Parmigiano valori nutrizionali (crt-01) Parmigiano: nutritional values (crt-01)


Parmigiano: nutritional values.

Parmigiano Reggiano contains 30% water and 70% nutrients: among these, the most useful for health are proteins (A, B2 and B6), calcium and phosphorus. The presence of fat is not excessive, but attention must be paid to sodium. Lactose and carbohydrates are almost completely absent. This cheese has no additives.

Parmigiano Reggiano without lactose (crt-01) Parmigiano Reggiano without lactose (crt-01)


Cheese without lactose.

Thanks to the technique used to produce it, Parmigiano Reggiano is almost completely lactose-free (0.01 grams for every 100 grams of product). Lactose is a particular type of sugar normally present in milk. This feature is made clear by a specific label, validated by the Italian Ministry of Health.

Parmigiano Reggiano, the right pairings (crt-01) Parmigiano Reggiano, the right pairings (crt-01)


The right pairings.

Parmigiano Reggiano can be tasted alone or paired with other foods. The most successful pairings depend much on the age of the cheese.
When it’s ‘fresh’ (12/18 months), it can be accompanied by:
Salads and fresh vegetables.
Fresh fruit: pears, apples, strawberries, grapes.
When it’s more aged (over 24/30 months), it can be accompanied by:
Dried fruits: walnuts, hazelnuts, dried figs.
Jams, mustards and honey.
Balsamic vinegar..
When grated, it’s perfect for seasoning pasta dishes, risottos and soups. It is also an excellent ingredient in the preparation of savory pies.

Parmigiano, the right wine (crt-01) Parmigiano, the right wine (crt-01)


The right wine.

Choosing the right wine to pair with Parmigiano Reggiano depends much on the aging of the cheese:
‘Fresh’ Parmigiano (min. 12 months): this can be accompanied by a dry white wine, with good acidity, such as ‘Vernaccia di San Gimignano’, or a bottle-fermented sparkling wine, such as ‘Franciacorta’, ‘Trento Classico’ or ‘Champagne’.
Medium-aged Parmigiano (24 months and more): this can be accompanied by a medium-bodied red wine, such as ‘Chianti Classico’ or a ‘Bardolino’.
Aged Parmigiano (approx. 30/36 months): this can be accompanied by a structured red wine, such as a ‘Barolo’, ‘Barbera d’Asti’ or ‘Amarone’.


Parmigiano in the Decameron.

Parmigiano Reggiano: Manuscript od the ‘Filostrato’ by Giovanni Boccaccio (img-03)

The oldest written evidence about Parmigiano and its great fame throughout history can be found in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a book written between 1350 and 1353. This cheese is mentioned in the novella ‘Calandrino and elitropia’, in which the author, to describe the fabulous country of ‘Bengodi’, writes:

“… a mountain, made with grated Parmesan cheese’, on which dwell folk that does nothing else but make macaroni and ravioli, and boil them in capon’s broth, and then throws them down to be scrambled for.”

This paragraph is very interesting, not only because clarifies that Parmigiano at that time was already considered a delicacy fit for a king, but also because indicates that it was grated and used to season pasta.


Famous people love Parmigiano Reggiano.

Parmigiano cheese has always been very popular. Many people have deeply loved its taste, among them a great number of celebrities. For example:

Moliere (1622-1673): it is said that the French playwright appreciated Parmigiano so much to desire to savor it before dying.
Casanova (1725-1798): according to his memoirs, the great Italian lover often gave to his women Parmigiano cheese instead of flowers.
Napoleone (1769-1921 ): the Emperor of the French started to love Parmigiano cheese thanks to his wife Maria Luigia, Duchess of Parma.
Dumas (1802-1870): the author of the Three Musketeers loved cooking and often offered to his friends macaroni seasoned with Parmesan.


The Protected Designation of Origin.

In 1996 Europe assigned the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) to Parmigiano Reggiano: with this legal act, the Community not only has certified the unique characteristics of this cheese but has also pledged to protect them from any imitation attempt.
Read more

The Denomination establishes in fact that Parmigiano Reggiano, to be defined as such, must respect the rules contained in a specific ‘product specification document’. These rules include, for example, precise indications on the ingredients, the production area and the appearance of the cheese.


The product specification document.

The ‘product specification document’ of Parmigiano Reggiano is the document containing the rules to be followed by cheese producers to make the original ‘Parmigiano Reggiano DOP’.
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These rules concern, for example, the place of origin of the milk, the production area, the preparation technique, the appearance and so on.
It’s possible to download this document directly from the official website, please click HERE (Courtesy of Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano).

Parmigiano Reggiano DOP (crt-01)


The lands of Parmigiano, the original Parmesan cheese

Parmigiano Reggiano is produced in the Italian Region of Emilia-Romagna, in an area including the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and part of the provinces of Bologna (to the left of the river Reno) and Mantua (to the right of the river Po). The milk used for this specialty must come from farms located in the same zone.

Parmigiano Reggiano: how is made? Printable schema.


Parmigiano Reggiano: how is made? Printable document.

Click here to view (and, eventually, download) a printable document showing the steps necessary to produce Parmigiano Reggiano.


Monasteries: the ‘cradles’ of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Parmigiano Reggiano was born thanks to the talent and experience of the Benedictine and Cistercian monks from four monasteries located in the area of Parma and Reggio. That’s why these monasteries can be considered the ‘cradles’ of one of the most famous cheeses in the world:
The abbey of San Giovanni in Parma (Benedictine), built in 980 AD
The monastery of San Prospero in Reggio Emilia (Benedictine), built in 997 (ca.).
The Abbey of Fontevivo near Parma (Cistercian), built in 1142.

The abbey of Valserana / San Martino near Parma (Cistercian), built in 1298.

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Verdi’s music for Parmigiano Reggiano.

Giuseppe Verdi’s music is most probably the ideal choice to accompany some Parmigiano Reggiano. About this, it’s important to remember that the famous Italian composer was originally from Busseto, a small town not far from the city of Parma.

Note: join Spotify and listen to the full songs.


Parmigiano Reggiano on video.

Here follows a video showing the world of Parmigiano Reggiano (Courtesy of Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano)

The name of Parmigiano Reggiano.


The origins of the name.

Parmigiano Reggiano, one of the most famous cheeses in the world, has not always had this name: during the Middle Ages, this specialty was generically known as ‘caseus parmensis’ (Latin for ‘cheese from Parma’).
Read more

One of the first written testimonies about the use of the word ‘Parmigiano’ dates back to 1344 and can be found is in the novella ‘Calandrino e elitropia’, part of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron.
1612 was a particularly important year for this cheese, since the Duke of Parma Ranuccio I Farnese, to protect the most exported product of his lands, had a special notarial document to certify the name ‘Parmigiano’ and the place of origin of the specialty (*1).
The name ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ started to be used only in 1938.


Parmigiano and literature.

Parmesan is explicitly mentioned in many famous literary works, among them Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, the novel ‘Treasure Island’ by Robert Louis Stevenson and the book ‘Giannettino’ by Carlo Collodi (the author of ‘Pinocchio’ ).

The shape of Parmigiano Reggiano (crt-01)


The wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Parmigiano Reggiano is produced in cylindrical blocks (‘wheels’) with a slightly rounded side known as ‘scanso’. Here follow some numbers to give an idea about the dimensions of these blocks:

  • Face diameter: from 35cm to 45cm (about 13.5 to 17.5 inches);
  • Crust thickness: 6mm (about 0.2 inches);

According to the product specification document, each wheel must weigh at least 30 kilos: a remarkable value considering that to produce each kilo, 13.5 liters of milk are needed.


Parmigiano cheese, calories.

Parmigiano Reggiano contains a good amount of calories: around 430 for 100 grams, making this cheese a precious energy reserve for those who do physical activity, such as athletes.


‘Mountain Product’.

Some wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano differ from the others for the presence of a plaque bearing the words ‘Prodotto di Montagna’ (‘Mountain Product’): this indicates that the cheese has particular organoleptic characteristics, mainly due to its place of origin.
Read more

Parmigiano Reggiano ‘Prodotto di Montagna’, although it’s made by companies belonging to the Consortium, must necessarily comply with some additional rules than those contained in the ‘regular’ product specification document. These require, for example, that the breeding of cows and the production phases (including maturing) take place in mountain areas.


The right cows for Parmigiano Reggiano.

One of the main characteristics of Parmigiano Reggiano is the great quality of the milk used to make it. This milk is produced by two different types of cow: the ‘Frisona’, more productive, and the traditional ‘Regiana Rossa’, that gives life to a very tasty cheese.


The aphrodisiac properties of Parmigiano.

Although there is no scientific evidence for this, Parmigiano Reggiano is often considered a type of food with aphrodisiac properties.
A possible explanation for this probably lies in the presence in this cheese of a particular type of amino acid indirectly linked to sexual desire. In addition, it contains a large number of nutrients that can actually increase physical performance. No coincidence that this specialty is often part of athletes’ diet.


The history of Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano.

The ‘Consorzio volontario del Grana Reggiano‘ (‘Volunteer Consortium of Grana Reggiano‘) was born in 1928 in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia.
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In 1934 this evolved in the ‘Consorzio Volontario Interprovinciale Grana Tipico’ (‘Interprovincial Consortium of Grana Tipico’), starting to use the traditional oval-shaped brand. In 1938 the name ‘Parmigiano Reggiano‘ was officially adopted, giving life to the ‘Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano’ as we know it today: this includes hundreds of cheese producers, gathered to guarantee the quality of the product, promote it around the world and defend it from the many imitation attempts.


Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano: contacts.

Address: Via John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 18
42124 Reggio Emilia (RE)
Tel.: +39 0522 307741


Click here.

The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (*) – Treasure Island, cover, 1911, Charles Scribner’s Sons (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-02 (*) – Portrait of Ranuccio I Farnese, C. Aretusi (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-03 (*) – Boccaccio, manuscript (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-04 (*) – Portrait of Moliere, 1656, N.Mignard (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-05 (*) – Portrait of G.Casanova, 1760, A.R.Mengs (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-06 (*) – Napoleone, Rédition de Madrid, 1810, A.J.Gros (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-07 (*) – A.Dumas, 1876 (ca.), Etienne Carjat & Co. (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-08 (*) – Portrait of G.Verdi, 1886, G.Boldini (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}

These images are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported:

cc-01 (**) – Valserena Abbey in Paradigna (Parma). Image owner: Marco Fallini (Wikipedia Link)

These images are made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication:

cc-02 (**) – Paolina Borghese, Canova. Image owner: Art Gallery ErgsArt (Wikipedia Link)

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crt-01 – Images published courtesy of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano.

Header images:

Images published courtesy of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano.

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(**) Image released in public domain by its author.