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Ask an expert: ‘What’s the difference between Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano and parmesan cheese?’

Why isn't supermarket parmesan cheese the same as Parmigiano Reggiano? Is it really worth paying more? And how should it be eaten?

Ask an expert: 'What's the difference between Italy's Parmigiano Reggiano and parmesan cheese?'
There's a reason many Italians say Parmigiano Reggiano is 'the king of cheese'. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP

You’ve probably heard that the blocks of parmesan in US supermarkets are not the same as the cheeses produced in Italy. But why not, and how much difference does it make?

We asked an expert to answer a few of these common questions from readers who are, of course, also lovers of Italian food.

Isn’t parmesan and Parmigiano Reggiano the same thing? 

In a word – no, says Italian food writer Roberto Serra, who was born in the area where Parmigiano Reggiano is made.

“It’s important to know that Parmigiano Reggiano is made in an area that includes three whole cities – Parma, Reggio Emilia, and Modena,” he says.

“The name comes from the first two cities, which are the two most widely involved in the making of this cheese.”

Parmigiano Reggiano can only be made in that specific area, with producers following strict guidelines.

READ ALSO: The ten ‘unbreakable’ rules for making real Italian pasta alla carbonara

“To prevent changes from the recipe and to tackle counterfeiting, manufacturers in Parma and Reggio Emilia started to collaborate in the 20th century. In 1928 they established what is today the Consortium for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

“The Consortium issues the guidelines on the production and distribution of Parmigiano Reggiano, and bestows the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status (in Italian, DOP).

“Every year, about 3.7 million wheels are made in the 350 dairy farms that are located in the Parmigiano Reggiano area and follow the Consortium rules. Only those wheels, which have met the PDO requirements, are the authentic Parmigiano Reggiano.”

 

Wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano at a factory in Valestra. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP.

“What is Parmesan instead? In Europe, the name can be used only to identify the PDO-compliant Parmigiano Reggiano.

“Outside Europe, the term Parmesan is not protected by law, so you will find cheeses labeled “Parmesan” that are Parmigiano Reggiano imitations from the USA, Australia or other countries. 

“That ultimately brings a different product to your tables, with differences in complexity and consistency, since no strict rules have been applied to that cheese.”

Is it worth seeking out (and paying for) authentic Parmigiano Reggiano?

“Believe me, I tried parmesan cheese during my trips to the USA… and if you try Parmigiano Reggiano you will never go back,” says Roberto.

But as it costs nearly 20 euros per kilogram on average in Italy (depending on age), and prices can be much higher abroad, shoppers may wonder if the authentic Parmigiano Reggiano is worth the price.

Roberto insists that it’s money well spent. He points out that “one kilogram of Parmigiano Reggiano requires:

  • 16 liters of fresh milk from grass-fed cows, and no added preservatives
  • The work of lots of cheesemakers
  • at least 12 months of aging (usually I buy 24 or 36 month aged Parmigiano Reggiano).”
A cheesemaker in Gattatico, near Reggio Emilia, uses a hammer to tap the cheese and listen for tones indicating whether it has aged. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

How should it be eaten?

There are a lot of ways to use Parmigiano Reggiano in Italian cuisine, but Roberto’s serving suggestions include:

  • “As an appetizer: in shards, with honey, jam (fig jam is amazing), balsamic vinegar, or fresh fruit (grapes or figs). Always remember: never cut it with a knife, but break the cheese using the tip of it;
  • as a fundamental ingredient of risotto, in the final step (mantecatura): sausage and barbera, pumpkin or fava bean risotto are just some recipe examples.
  • grated on top of pasta: some recipes perfectly pair with Parmigiano Reggiano, including ragù bolognese or tortellini in brodo (broth).”

However, he says there are some dishes he would “definitely not” add it to, like a simple tomato and basil sauce for spaghetti, or fish-based dishes.

“When it comes to wine pairings, Parmigiano Reggiano is pure joy,” Roberto says. “Few foods can be as versatile as the king of cheese: red or white, sparkling or still, it is hard to go wrong.”

“My favorites:

  • white, still: I love white wines from North-Eastern Italy, so I would pick a Collio or Colli Orientali del Friuli from Friuli or a Pinot Grigio from Friuli or Trentino
  • red, still: try Amarone or Barolo with Parmigiano Reggiano for an unforgettable experience;
  • sparkling: here the perfect pairing comes from the territory of the cheese itself. Let’s go to Emilia Romagna and have a good Lambrusco with Parmigiano Reggiano!”

Have you got more questions? Find a complete guide to Parmigiano Reggiano on Roberto’s blog, Eatalian with Roberto.

Member comments

  1. I have always wondered what makes food so special that it can be only produced in a few named places. Why don’t we find it useful to have the same protection for industrial or other products? Let’s say for example that cars could be only called cars if they were manufactured in Turin, computer software from San Francisco, and movies from Hollywood or Cinecitta.

    What makes food/groceries so special that it can’t take the competition? Arguably industrial production couldn’t neither as we don’t have terribly many factories anymore in Europe, but still we didn’t exactly protect them.

    I’m not arguing against DOP as per se but I probably many will agree that the place of origin is not the most important feature of a product but the quality is.

    1. Hi Olli,

      If I may, you’re missing the point of DOP entirely. The French concept of “terroir” captures it well, but the point is that these are very complex agricultural products based on long traditions between people and nature. Many different factors affect the final flavor/quality of agricultural products–the quality of the soil, the diet of animals, the weather that year, the training of the artisans, in the case of Parma ham: the “flavour of the Versilia wind”… Whether or not you believe that wind can affect flavour customers find a kind of romance in these stories which gives DOP products value beyond their imitators.

      In short, you can’t compare apples with alfas, since this ignores all of the important differences in the way that things are produced which determine their “quality”–which is what you say people are mostly interested in.

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FOOD & DRINK

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.

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