There’s a lot of talk these days about “artisanal cheese,” “artisan cheese,“ “premium cheese,” “local cheese,” and even “local artisanal premium cheese.” Quite frankly, these terms are sometimes used loosely. An “artisanal” product is made in limited quantities by skilled craftspeople—in the case of cheese, they might be called cheese artisans.
As for “premium cheese,” the term describes a product of exceptional quality and value, while a reference to “local cheese” implies that the milk and cheese making take place in a well-defined geographical region.
An Artisanal Cheese from Way Back
It’s easy to make a case that Parmigiano Reggiano® cheese fits all of these definitions. The approximately 382 producers (based on 2011 data) who belong to the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano have the collective knowledge and determination to carry on traditions more than 800 years old. On average, each one makes just 23 wheels each day and becomes deeply familiar with those cheeses over the lengthy aging period. Thousands of local milk producers also participate in this artisanal cheese industry, vital to the regional economy.
Cheese Artisans with a Knowing Touch
In each cheese house (caseificio), there is a cheese maker (casaro) who oversees the crafting of every wheel of artisanal Parmesan cheese. At each stage of artisanal cheese making, this highly skilled person must judge how to proceed after taking into account variables that include the season and precise make-up of the milk. The cheese making depends not only on the individual casaro’s experience, but on practices and thinking that can be traced back through the centuries.
Another key cheese artisan is the independent inspector who determines whether each wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, after being aged 12 months, measures up to the Consorzio’s standards. He or she is known as the battitore, an expert who uses a special hammer to test the wheels. This job requires not just training but long experience to evaluate sensory data ranging from a visual inspection to aromas to the sounds emitted by a tapped wheel.
Working on a small scale, these and other cheese artisans are carrying on a rich tradition.