TRACKING down dairies that produce one of the finest cheeses in the world - Parmigiano-Reggiano - reminds one of a simple food truism that lived long before fast-food burgers and Twinkies: Taste begins with place.
In Italy, all roads to Parmesan country lead north to a stretch of pastures called the Zona Typica (a territory that blankets most of Emilia Romagna and part of Lombardy). Here, dairymen tell you without flinching that it's "the grass" in this zone that creates the big deep flavor of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The explanation? The cows that eat it produce a milk that is especially rich in proteins and fats - a vital combination in aging cheese.
It's a savvy, scientific food link that's been put to use by dairy families for more than seven centuries. Today, it's a bond that is stringently preserved by law: The only cheese that can bear the name Parmigiano-Reggiano (par-mee-jah-no reh-gee-ah-no) must come from cows that graze in these precisely delineated pastures.
A cooperative of 950 cheesemakers, the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, helps to maintain the high standards, inspecting some 2,500,000 wheels annually. Each golden drum that passes (it must have uniform color, no pores, and a smell that isn't too sharp or acidic) is branded with the month and year it was made, and the consortium's oval "expert" seal.
Though it's been said that the ancient Etruscans made a Parmesan-like cheese in Emilia, the first official record of a cheese called Parmigiano dates back to the 1300s, during an agriculture wave that swept into the Po River Plain in Emilia-Romagna. Marshes were drained, irrigation systems sprang up, and the cows (brought in to plow the new fields) grew fat on the land, producing more milk than could possibly be drunk - and sparking a demand for new milk products.
Despite its rich reputation and long history, Parmigiano-Reggiano remains relatively unknown to most North Americans. Back in the mid-1940s, the Kraft food company beat Italian-cheese exporters to the American-Parmesan marketplace, introducing the country to its first taste of "Parmesan" in a version that was far paler (made with cellulose powder and potassium sorbate) yet convenient (pre-grated in a green cylinder shaker).
Today, in the midst of the current Italian food revival in the United States, Parmigiano-Reggiano can be found in an increasing number of gourmet stores and Italian markets.
Food experts advise cheese lovers willing to spend a few extra bucks and the energy to track it down - but are left wondering how to identify the real McCoy: Look for the hefty golden wheel imprinted with the name Parmigiano-Reggiano. The insides should be pale-amber without any dry white patches, and should taste nutty and mildly sweet, not sharp or pungent - and crackle in your mouth.
As for most handmade products that have survived in spite of the push toward mechanization, the technique in making a wheel of Parmesan requires the gentle eye and hand of an artisan. Indeed, to become a master cheesemaker requires a lifetime of experience. Most begin this livelihood in 10- to 15-year apprenticeships as teenagers. What they cultivate then - and what they continue to refine - are solid instincts for milk, an element whose acid, fat, and protein level fluctuates with each batch every day.
ONE morning under a pink sky, I drove to the town of Reggio to one of the 1,000 Parmesan dairies within Zona Typica. (This town and Parma were production hot spots during the Middle Ages, and significant name-inspirers.)
For an out-of-towner to track down this plain building located off the autostrada required the eyes of a bird-watcher: Its sole marker along the country road is a sculpture of cheese wedges propped high on a pole.
As I stepped onto the wet cement floor of the dairy's off-white room, the stench of sour milk hit me like a gripping handshake. On the move was Enesto Gabbi, a stocky and spritely cheesemaster, and his two younger assistants, intently engaged with seven waist-high copper cauldrons of steaming milk, swirled by murmuring Goliath-sized eggbeaters.
Each day this trio - dressed in long white uniforms and high rubber boots - turn out 30 glistening wheels, plus baskets of soft ricotta and blocks of pale butter made from the discarded whey of Parmesan production. Most of these products are sold out of the dairy's no-frills store attached to the front, operated by Mr. Gabbi's wife; a smaller portion is sold in local markets.
Throughout my morning visit, the mystery that surrounds the making of a perfect Parmesan wheel was slowly revealed, as production came into focus: Milk from the morning is blended with skimmed milk from the previous night. This mixture gets heated, cooled, and heated again as fermented whey and rennet (an extract from the stomach lining of calf) are added to set off fermentation. The soft curds that grow settle to the bottom of each cauldron, eventually forming a huge tasteless, grainy round. These loave s are shaped, then lifted and hung from cheesecloth - hammock style - tied to sticks that lie across each vat.
Once drained, the loaves are halved, then pressed into wooden hoops and left to sit for a few hours.
Matrixes imprinted with the name Parmigiano-Reggiano are inserted, and the newly-made wheels sit in stone baths of sea-salt for 23 days.
After a brief drying, their long aging begins in the dairy's cellar - a window-lit room filled with 4,000 wall-to-wall wheels - where they will remain for two years.
According to this cheesemaker with bushy graying brows and lively eyes, the future hand-off of this traditional skill is growing uncertain. The number of young apprentices, another important resource in production besides lush grass, is dwindling, he says. (Gabbi tells me his two daughters have both chosen work outside the dairy.)
I ask him what is behind this fading interest, and in his thick Italian dialect, he says simply, "Kids today aren't interested because it's too much work. How much is too much? In an answer rooted in another simple dairy truism - that cows give milk twice a day, everyday, including Christmas - Gabbi tells me "365 days a year, 12 hours a day, seven days a week" with a grin that's on the verge of cutting loose.