When in Parma, tasting tour is a must

Our guide whacks the side of a wheel of Parmigiano- Reggiano with a metal hammer. "Hear that ping? A thud is a dud," he says. "Like wine, cheese has a peak. And that ping signals ripeness."

When rain inundates us on a dreary Monday and museums are closed, we opt for ham-and-cheese touring and tasting so we can experience what Parma is famous for.

In this region of crenelated castles towering over trim farm buildings, epicures have been heard to exclaim, "Parmigiano-Reggiano is not only lunch; it is also a pause in serenity." Parma's astounding art and beautifully adorned boutiques are the foam on the cappuccino; for food is to this celebrated gastronomical capital of Italy as the Sistine Chapel is to Rome.

This area of Emilia-Romagna in central Italy is celebrated for Parmigiano-Reggiano, the pièce de résistance of Italian cooking. Chefs at trattorias and restaurants freshly grate hearty servings over local specialties of risotto ai porcini freschi and tagliatelle al prosciutto, as well as feature it in buffets of calda and freddo (hot and cold) antipasti. Parmigiano is such a staple of the Italian kitchen, where it is used as a table cheese - in antipasto, sauces, and pies, and on meats and vegetables - that only 6 percent of production ends up on the world's tables.

We had arranged for a tour of a Parmigiana-Reggiano processing plant. As we drove with our guide, Giovanni Morini, we noticed the rolling jade pastures of the countryside lacked grazing cows. Due to a scarcity of land, Mr. Morini tells us, the animals are raised inside to ration their feed for the five winter months. Heifers are fed carefully controlled combinations of grass, hay, and soybean concentrates.

"This strict diet, a special climate, soil, lack of additives, and an aging period of two years, all add up to the world's most celebrated Parmigiana," he says.

The Italians struck gold as early as the 16th century when Parmigiano was hailed as "Italy's most valued product," usurping that honor from wool. Allegedly devoured by knights in shining armor, the cheese has been venerated in literature since the 13th century. Though it is still made by hand today, as it has been for seven centuries, production has become an exact science, created by artisans, with the quality controlled by the government, and a consortium of 950 cheesemakers from 20,000 small dairies overseeing production.

The name Parmigiano-Reggiano is applied only to cheese produced in the zona tipica belt of Parma: Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, Mantua, and Cremona.

We turn right at the wedge-of-cheese sign to find the casello, a sparkling modern plant, where five operators monitor steaming, inverted-church-bell-shaped copper kettles of foaming creamy liquid, from which 40 wheels of cheese are produced each day.

Our first stop is the loading docks, where milk from neighboring farms is pumped by hose into flat trays above the cooking area. Two successive milkings are combined for each batch. Only the lightest cream is used for the cheese.

Following the ancient tradition, the mixture is stirred slowly by hand with a wire basket as it heats to 91 degrees F. To create a precise fermentation with heat off, rennet, a natural extract from calves' stomachs, is added.

Within 12 to 15 minutes of automatic churning, the cagliata (curd) forms, solidified by the rennet. (Leftover liquid is the whey.) The curd is whisked gently with a spino (thorn bush), reducing the coagulated mass to small granules.

With the mastery of a violinist fine-tuning his instrument, the master cheesemaker gradually raises the temperature of the curd to 131 degrees F. As it cools, cheese fragments drop to the bottom to form a solid. Five operators independently monitor the temperature of each of the 10 vats. Morini says a 20-second variation can ruin a whole vat.

The maestro, an artist of 10 years' experience, performs the final inspection.

Using a wooden paddle, one operator raises the mound of cheese that has formed at the bottom of the kettle. Another surrounds the mass in a hemp sieve cloth tied to wooden sticks and whacks it in half. Each section is lifted out and plopped into a circular wooden mold, then lightly pressed down.

"Each weighs in at approximately 85 pounds and is marked with the date and vat number," Morini tells us. The cheese is then sealed with cloth, and a wooden weight is placed on it to flatten the top.

A few hours later, the cloth is removed from the curing cheese, and the words Parmigiano Reggiano, along with the certifying plant, number of vat, and date are stamped all over the hardened rind. During the next two days, the cheese is stored in a metal mold for shaping. It rests on its flat end and is turned at frequent intervals.

For 26 days, the cheeses are floated and revolved each day in a mild brine of sea salt. The salt penetrates one-quarter inch to form a rind, a natural protective casing.

"If you scape off the impurities, it's great for flavoring soup," Morini says. "If the water level of the beds rises [a sign of contamination], the floating cheese must be thrown out."

After immersion, the cheeses are removed to a cascina (storehouse), where 50,000 to 100,000 are kept on wooden shelves and rotated once daily, for a slow, two-year, air-cured aging.

A controller - armed with hammer, needle tester, and probe - checks the aging process. At one year old, the cheese is smooth and milky, but it takes two years for the piquant richness to emerge.

He inserts the needlelike prong to test aroma, announcing, "Only 30 percent make the grade of first-class Parmigiano-Reggiano."

Then comes the best part of the tour: tasting the 26-month-old Parmigiano- Reggiano. The verdict: first class all the way.

Parmesan Bites

This recipe for buttery, flaky crackers made with the preeminent Italian cheese appears in "Home Cooking With the Uncommon Gourmet," by Ellen Helman (Font & Center Press).

1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Pinch of paprika

In a bowl, combine all of the ingredients and mix well until the dough comes together and forms a ball. Form into a log 6 inches long and 1-3/4 inches in diameter. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 1 hour and as long as overnight.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Slice the dough into 1/4-inch thick rounds. Place the rounds on ungreased cookie sheets.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes until golden. Remove the crackers from the pan to a rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 24 crackers.

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