PARMESAN MUST BE PERFECT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Marcella Hazan, the Julia Child of Italian cooking, vows sh has never spent a day without it nearby in the fridge.

It has adorned the tables of popes, knights and kings for nearly a millennium.

And in the 14th century, Giovanni Boccaccio paid memorable tribute to this Italian original, Parmesan cheese, in his collection of tales, "The Decameron."

In one tale, a simpleton named Calandrino listens rapturously to a tale about the faraway land of Bengodi, where vines are tied up with sausages, streams of wine trickle through the land, and, best of all, there's a mountain of Parmigiano. Bengodi's fortunate inhabitants spend their days cooking pasta in chicken broth, then rolling each bit down the mountain to gild it in the cheese's spirited flavor before it pops onto the tongues of diners at the bottom.

Through their history, Italians have had a knack for transforming the ordinary into the dazzling, whether it be a ceiling adorned by the hand of a Michaelangelo or Correggio, or a car like a Maserati that purrs as it laps up the kilometers. This Italian passion for perfection goes some distance toward explaining how this smallish country of 58 million people has created one of the world's great cuisines.

From antipasti to zabaglione, many Italian dishes are simplicity itself for the cook to put together. There are no long lists of ingredients that mask basic flavors. But for that very reason, say Italian culinary authorities like Ms. Hazan and Giuliano Bugialli, it's important to use absolutely the best ingredients you can come by. Every ingredient should make a statement. Ms. Hazan believes so strongly in the importance of using genuine Italian Parmesan cheese when the recipe calls for it that she squires her students to the countryside to see the cheese made.

"Parmigiano-Reggiano," as it is known in Italy and in well-stocked cheese alcoves of American supermarkets and Italian specialty stores, is made in a prescribed area of North Central Italy near the cities of Parma and Reggio Emilia. Just as a bottle of Bordeaux wine comes from local grapes fermented and aged in accordance with the customs of France's Bordeaux region, so too is Parmigiano-Reggiano a regional specialty. Although Americans might refer to any grating cheese as Parmesan, Italians call this class of pale, grating cheeses "grana," a reference to the grainy texture of the members of the group, which also includes the saltier, sharper tasting Romano.

In fact, the name Parmigiano is restricted by law in Italy to refer only to cheese made according to the exacting rules of the

Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, the co-op for dairy farmers who make this golden food. The rules spell out everything, from the kind of cow that must be used (a Holstein), to what she must eat, to how this fragrant product from her milk must be handled at each stage of a process that typically takes two years from milking to marketing.

As I watched the process recently at a dairy near Parma, cheesemakers showed an almost monkish devotion to making this pure, wholesome food. Cheesemaking at each of the nearly 900 independent dairies in the region of zona tipica begins in the evening when the cows are milked.

Every cow is treated like bovine royalty: A Parmigiano milking cow is never left to graze in the pasture, where God knows what might pass her lips. Instead, fresh mown grass and hay -- and never any silage, which might affect the flavor of her milk -- is delivered to her stall. Each cow's milk is carried -- not pumped -- to the cheesemaking area in sterile milk cans, since pumping it could alter the delicate molecular structure, explains Leo Bertozzi, a chemist for the Consorzio.

Overnight, the cream from the evening milk rises to the top, where some is skimmed off for butter. (Parmigiano has at most 2.4 percent butterfat, which is less than the 3.5 percent butterfat contained in whole milk.) The partially skimmed remaining milk is mixed with whole milk from the next morning's milking, and poured into enormous copper caldrons that look like upended church bells.

Extravagant quantities of milk go into the cheese. Each copper cauldron holds 1,100 liters, or 290 gallons. That much will make two 80-pound wheels of Parmigiano; thus, it takes nearly two gallons of milk to make a pound of Parmigiano.

Though Americans aren't used to thinking of Parmesan cheese as a health food, advertisements in Italy promote it as the perfect food for the very young and old. Italian pediatricians advise mothers to enrich baby foods with it, and gerontologists prescribe it as a healthful supplement for the elderly with poor appetites. Parmigiano's long aging, low moisture content, and high ratio of milk to finished cheese (about one cup of milk for every ounce of cheese) mean that it's not only exceptionally rich in calcium and phosphorus, but that it has a higher protein content (36 percent) than any other kind of cheese. It is also lower in fat than many cheeses.

Back at the dairy, the cheesemaker pours a starter of fermenting whey into the huge vats of milk to raise the acid content of the milk. Then he heats the milk until it is nearly body temperature (91 degrees Fahrenheit), and adds rennet, a natural extract from the stomach of nursing calves, to coagulate the milk, or separate it into curds and whey.

"Parmigiano is different from most other cheeses because we don't use anything artificial," explains Mr. Bertozzi. "For example, we could substitute artificial rennet, which is far less expensive than natural rennet, but we don't."

Why not, when artificial rennet is cheaper and when it's doubtful that anyone could tell the difference in the end, when the pale gold flakes are melting over a steamy bowl of linguine? The answer lies in a mindset that may puzzle many Americans. Part of a great culinary tradition is respect for all the tiny steps that go into the glory of the final product. If you've been making a great wine or cheese for hundreds of years, you don't cut any corners. Perhaps no one would notice a small change or two, but who knows for sure? For these cheesemakers, substitution seems to be viewed as the first step on a slippery slope that could lead to Parmigiano losing its edge in taste.

The rennet acts upon the milk in the vat within 15 minutes, solidifying the milk's most nutritive elements into the curd. The cheesemaker stirs the pot with an instrument called a spino, which looks like a gigantic wire whip, in order to break up the curd into little fragments about the size of grains of rice.

Firing up the vat again, the cheesemaker watches until the curdled mixture reaches 131 degrees Fahrenheit, then he shuts off the heat. The granules of cheese sink to the bottom and form a mass that weighs about 300 pounds. After about half an hour, two muscular men using a wooden paddle flip and roll the rubbery mass into a cheesecloth sling, then pull it to the surface. The cheesemaker cleaves the beach-ball-sized sphere in two with a knife that resembles a machete.

Swathed in cheesecloth, each warm, butter-scented half is stuffed into a circular wooden mold and pressed gently to squeeze out the whey. It is at this point that a stencil is inserted between the mold and the cheese to mark the rind with a repeating design that spells out "Parmigiano-Reggiano" all along the side of the cheese, now shaped like a squat barrel. It's this distinctive rind that tells you at a glance whether or not a hunk is genuine Parmigiano.

After firming up in the mold for a few days, the cheese then spends the next three to four weeks bobbing in a bath of brine, which extracts moisture and infuses the cheese with flavor. When the wheel emerges from the bath, it is a denser, more compact food.

The last stage of production -- seasoning -- is also the longest. The wheels are kept on wooded shelves in cavernous storehouses with a buttery odor. By the way, the sight of those ceiling-high stacks of this sublime food, each wheel worth about $700 on the open market, has sometimes tempted the local criminal element to pull off a cheese heist. The dairy owner's usual reward to a diligent police officer who catches the perpetrator is one of those burnished wheels.

During the 18 to 24 months of seasoning, attendants brush the wheels regularly to remove dust and mold, testing each wheel as it approaches maturity by inserting a needle into the center, and then sniffing it to judge the cheese's character.

Quality control inspectors from the Consorzio check the cheeses for defects, such as a crack in the rind or pockets of air trapped inside, which they discover by tapping each wheel with a little hammer and "listening" for the holes.

"Between 15 and 20 percent of the cheeses are rejected as inferior," explains Mario Zannoni, a laboratory supervisor for the Consorzio. "These are sold in Italy not as Parmigiano-Reggiano, but as grana."

When is a cheese ready? That depends. The time of year in which the milk was collected and weather conditions during its long period of rest affect its flavor, and thus, how long it must be seasoned. All Parmigiano is left on the shelf to develop its full, richly complex flavor for at least 18 months, but two years is a more typical stretch.

A dusting of freshly grated Parmigiano over pasta is a perfect way to experience its distinctive taste; but Parmigiano also adds a distinctive touch to everything from appetizers to main courses and even dessert.

For cooks who would like to expand their Parmigiano repertoire, here are a few recipes.

Salmon canapes

Serves four to six.

4 ounces smoked salmon

6 tablespoons sweet butter

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano

1 tablespoon lemon juice

6 pitted black olives, sliced in half

12 slices bread, 1/2 inch thick, 3 to 4 inches wide

Put the first four ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend into a smooth paste. Spread onto a slice of bread. Garnish by placing a black olive in the center of each canape.

Black olives and anchovies canapes

Makes about 46 appetizers.

18 Greek-style black olives, pitted

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/4 cup sweet butter

1 tablespoon anchovy paste

12 slices of toasted bread, 1/2 inch thick and 3 to 4 inches wide

1/2 sweet green pepper, cut lengthwise into thin strips

1/2 sweet red pepper, cut lengthwise into thin strips

Put 12 black olives, the Parmigiano, butter and anchovy paste in a food processor or blender and blend into a smooth paste. Spread the mixture on the toasted bread slices. Cut into triangles and garnish by placing a halved black olive in the center and 2 thin slices of green and red pepper on either side of the olive.

Pasta shells with lentils Serves four to six.

1/2 pound lentils

1 whole onion, peeled and quartered

1 medium carrot, sliced

1 celery stalk, sliced

2 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup pancetta or lean bacon, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

1 pound shell-shaped pasta

2/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano

Boil the lentils with the onion, the carrot, and the celery and drain when tender, about 45 minutes.

In a saucepan deep enough to contain the lentils, saute the garlic in the oil over medium heat until it turns pale brown. Remove the garlic, add the chopped onion and pancetta or bacon and saute for a few minutes. Add the lentils, mixing thoroughly over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper. Cook the pasta, add the lentil sauce and toss. Add Parmigiano and toss again, very thoroughly.

Rigatoni with boiled ham

Serves four to six.

6 ounces ham, diced

4 ounces whole-milk mozzarella, diced

1 cup heavy cream

1 pound rigatoni

6 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano

salt to taste

2 tablespoons butter

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Put ham and mozzarella in a saucepan. Add the cream and the Parmigiano. Turn on the heat to low and cook for just a few minutes until the cream is slightly reduced. Cook the rigatoni according to package directions until al dente (firm to the bite) and drain immediately.

Transfer to a buttered baking dish, add the sauce and toss thoroughly. Place in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to settle for a few minutes before serving.

Filets of turkey breast with Parmigiano

Serves four to six.

1 pound of breast of turkey slices

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 cup bread crumbs

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon butter

5 ounces Parmigiano, cut into slivers

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Dip each turkey slice on both sides in the egg and then into the bread crumbs. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat and cook the turkey slices until golden.

When done, transfer to a buttered baking dish, cover each slice with the Parmigiano slivers and place in the oven for 10 minutes or until the Parmigiano melts.

Pork rib chops Serves four.

2 cloves garlic, peeled

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 pork rib chops

5 ounces Parmigiano, cut into slivers

In a skillet, saute the garlic with the oil. Add the pork chops, browning them on both sides over high heat. Remove the garlic, reduce heat to medium, and cook the chops until barely cooked through, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt, place slivers of Parmigiano over the chops, cover and cook another minute or so, just until cheese has melted. Serve immediately.

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