Spending a day at a parmesan cheese factory in Italy sounds like a grate idea! Alexis and her friends take a tour in Reggio Emilia and get a firsthand look at the steps in the cheese-making process—from learning about the cows to molding cheese wheels.
On one rainy day here in Florence, my friends and I decided what better way to spend our day in Italy than to do a parmesan cheese tour! This experience was without a doubt one of our favorite memories here in Italy. Let me explain why!
We woke up nice and early Saturday morning to catch the 7:30am train from Florence heading to the city of Reggio Emilia; this train ride was only one hour long, which was enough time for a quick power nap! Our tour guide, Claudio, picked us up from the train station and took us to a traditional Reggio Emilia breakfast. The traditional breakfast food in Reggio Emilia is called Erbazzone, which is a spinach and parmesan flat cake. It was delicious, and we even got the recipe to make it back in Florence!
At breakfast, Cladio explained that the tour had to be early morning because that's when the cheese is made. He also told us that the cheesemakers work every day, no matter what! I asked Cladio how COVID affected the production of the cheese. I was surprised with his answer when he said that it didn't affect it much because people still needed to eat, so they needed to keep on producing so the market was not affected much by COVID.
After breakfast, we headed over to where the magic is. We entered the cheese factory where we were greeted with the aroma of cheese. In the factory, there are massive copper vats where the parmesan cheese is created. The ingredients are very simple to parmesan cheese: milk, whey, and salt. Claudio informed us that the cheese can vary from season to season based on the cow’s milk, which depends on the grass the cows eat.
Once the parmesan cheese is formed in these vats, it is held up to be dried and cut in half. In Italian, the name for twins is ‘gemelli’, which is what these halves are named. Each half is 80 pounds! It takes a team to do this process because it is so heavy; it’s definitely an arm workout.
Caption: Team work makes the dream work!
Once the cheese is formed, it is packed in plastic molds that give the cheese its famous look... a cheese wheel! After the cheese has dried, it is taken to a massive salt bath where the cheese will bathe for 20 days. This is what forms the hard like shell around the cheese wheel. I usually throw this part away when eating fancy cheese, however, Claudio mentioned that it's actually edible and really good in soups! The salt also adds to the cheese flavor.
I would call the next room the holy grail! The cheese is put into storage for either 12, 24, or 36 months. Over this time the cheese will mature and take on a different flavor depending on how long it ages. The 12-month-old cheese is very soft, whereas the 36-month product is much harder and has a more pronounced flavor.
Cladio told us that back in when his grandfather was working here, he would personally have to clean the cheese from mold once a week. However, a machine has since been developed to turn the cheese over and clean it. It's amazing to see how technology has helped an industry so much!
Cladio showed us how they tell there are holes in the cheese using a wooden hammer tool. I was the lucky one of the group that was chosen to use the hammer. Not to brag but Cladio said I had an excellent ear for finding holes in the cheese. Sorry Mom and Dad but I may permanently stay here and do this for a living! My favorite picture of all time may be of me holding the wheel of cheese! Cladio then allowed us to hold the cheese block. Each block is 80 pounds, and Cladio could not believe I was able to hold it.
Caption: I guess arm day at the gym paid off!
For the next part of the trip, we meet the stars of the show… the cows! We even met a calf that was born just 3 days before. Cladio also showed the massager for the cows. What a luxury they live! Cladio explained that having the cows relax is a big factor on how their cheese turns out. The reasoning is because if the cows are stressed, it negatively affects the milk which then affects the taste of the cheese.
The best and final part was the cheese tasting! Cladio gave us three different parmesan samples to try: one aged 12 months, 24 months, and 36 months! The fan favorite was the 24-month-old cheese. It was the perfect balance of the softness of the 12-month sample with the bitter taste of the 36-month sample! After we stuffed our bellies with cheese, Cladio gave us the best gift of all time… a block of cheese! After a long day, Cladio took us to the train station where we boarded the train back to Florence. We rode the train back with stomachs full of cheese and an amazing memory (and of course the block of cheese)!
Alexis' journey continues all semester so stay tuned.