Friday, June 3, 2011

Cheese: Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is a hard cheese made in Italy in the areas of Parma (Parmigiano is the Italian adjective for Parma), Reggio Emilia (Reggiano is the Italian adjective for Reggio Emilia), Modena, Bologna, and Mantova, Italy. Parmesan is the French name for the cheese and also the informal term used in English. It is a PDO (protected designation of origin) cheese. In the U.S., imitation cheese is sold under the name Parmesan and it is not the PDO Italian Parmigiano Reggiano. Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio is cheese that is aged three years instead of the normal two years. 
Parmigiano Reggiano is mentioned in written documents from the 1200s and probably has an origin much earlier than that. It is made from raw cow's milk. The cows can be fed only grass and hay, not silage. Milk from the evening milking is left in shallow tanks to allow the cream to separate. The milk portion (skimmed milk) is mixed with whole milk from the next morning milking and put into copper-lined vats. Starter whey is added, it is heated to about 93 degrees and calf rennet is added. It is allowed to curdle for about 10 minutes. The curd is broken into small pieces the size of rice grains and the heat is increased to 131 degrees. The curd is left to settle for about 50 minutes, then placed in stainless steel molds for several days and imprinted with the Parmigiano Reggiano name. 
The cheese is put into a brine bath of Mediterranean sea salt for about 22 days and then aged for 12 months. At 12 months each cheese is inspected by a grader who uses a hammer to tap the cheese and by sound detect undesirable cracks and voids. Cheeses that pass inspection are branded on the rind with the inspectors logo and those that don't pass are marked on the rind with lines and crosses to inform consumers it is not top quality Parmigiano Reggiano. Each cheese is aged an average of two years. Wikipedia says that the cheese "has a sharp, complex fruity/nutty taste with a strong umami [savoriness] flavor and a slightly gritty texture." Parmigiano Reggiano is grated and used in pasta, soup and risotto and eaten in chunks with balsamic vinegar and is an ingredient in pesto and alfredo sauce.  The Parmesan cheese sold in the U.S. differs from Parmigiano Reggiano in that: (a) the milk is pasteurized; (b) the curds are cut into much larger fragments which don't drain as effectively and so it must be mechanically pressed to expel moisture; (c) the wheels are much smaller (24 pounds versus 84 pounds) which impacts salt saturation during brining - the Parmigiano Reggiano has two-thirds less salt than Parmesan; (d) Parmesan is aged for a shorter time; and (e) it is often sold grated. I previously did a post on Parmigiano Reggiano that was aged two years. 
The difference between it and Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio is that the Stravecchio is aged three years. Note that the two year cheese has a grayish rind that is not much different in color from the whitish flesh. The Stravecchio rind is substantially more brown and the brownish color goes deeper into the flesh. The flesh is also more brown and it is full of whitish amino acid crystals formed from the breakdown of proteins as the cheese ages. 
The two year cheese was more acidic and sharp. The Stravecchio was not as strong but was more complex and more crumbly. 
In our taste testing group we tasted 26 cheeses, including four hard cheeses. In addition to the Stravecchio, the hard cheeses were Pecorino Romano, Dry Monterey Jack and Ivernia. Of the eight in our taste testing group, four named Stravecchio as one of the four or five favorite cheeses we had tasted. I found the Stravecchio to have a very strong, distinctive, complex taste. The taste starts out slow, then builds. It is very different from Pecorino Romano. It is more sweet and nowhere near as sharp. Judy pointed out that it does the same thing to her tongue as tart things do. 
On the other hand, a number of people, among the hard cheeses, myself included, preferred the Pecorino Romano to the Stravecchio.  

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