Touring a Parmigiano-Reggiano Factory November 03, 2016 12:11

I was recently privileged to visit a Parmigiano-Reggiano plant outside Bologna, Italy. I've often remarked that visiting a cheese factory doesn't really convey an understanding of how cheese is made. The rows of gleaming vats and stainless steel machinery on display at large facilities (I'm picturing the Tillamook factory in Northern Oregon) could be confused with any other sort of food production.

For this reason I had tempered expectations about the Parmigiano-Reggiano factory tour. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that while production of this cheese is thoroughly modern, it's still very traditional.

The curd is developed in these copper-lined vats. One vat yields two wheels of cheese, and the curd is still cut and handled by actual humans!

cheese hanging

The twin muslin-wrapped curd masses are then raised by a ceiling crane and slid into the next room...

cheese vats

Where workers guide them into forms on draining tables.

cheese forming

The forms carry a "parmigiano-reggiano" imprint that will later appear legibly on the rind.

cheese wrapper

The cheeses are held in forms until the shape stabilizes.

cheese rest

Then transferred by crane into this series of brine vats, where they'll remain for a month.

cheese brining tanks

The brine vats are kept at the correct salinity with salt from this "salt locker."

salt locker

Once removed from the brine, the wheels are allowed to rest and "sweat" out excess salt. Then the young wheels are transferred to racks for ageing.

young cheese

Lots of wheels of cheese!

lots of cheese on racks

The racks were reinforced after a major earthquake caused significant damage a few years ago. Now they have triangular bracing in place.

ageing cheese

The cheeses darken considerably over the first year - you can also see how they're reduced in size as moisture escapes.

cheese contrast after ageing

The aged cheeses are individually tested and graded - only perfect wheels get the (literal) stamp of approval.

Packaging is still very hands-on too. They use a machine to help break the wheels into manageable chunks.

cut the cheese

But they still sling the wheels around by hand, and individually pack the wedges into shrink-wrap.

packaging cheese

I was impressed at how they've been able to bring in machines to help with heavy lifting, without compromising the tradition of very hands-on human involvement. 

So, props to the Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium for making their product economically viable and consistent without loosing the artisanal character. On the other hand, we saw hints of the dark side of consistency - pretty much 100% of dairy cattle appeared to be confined indoors. I asked around a lot about this, and the best answer I got is that the cattle feed needs to be tightly controlled in order to produce consistent cheese throughout the year. Makes sense - but denying access to pasture is at odds with what I normally associate with ethics or quality.