Parmigiano Reggiano

Perfect Parm

By Natasha Cousin

Sunterra’s leadership team and market managers had the exceptional good fortune of visiting Northern Italy back in 2018 to get an intimate first-hand view of just how Italy’s most famous cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, is made. With this extraordinary cheese on special this month in our markets, it seemed like the perfect time to talk about what we saw while touring the plant.

The plant is located in a unique area of Italy called Poggioli in Modena. When we arrived at the plant early in the morning we were greeted by the Ferrarini family with hairnets, lab jackets, shoe covers and tiny cups of espresso shoved into our hands. Let the cheese tour begin!

Sunterra has built a very important partnership with the Ferrarini family, whose third-generation family farm provides the milk to the plant. Fabiana Ferrarini toured us through the process while we watched the cheesemakers in awe. Because Parmigiano Reggiano is a Protected Designation of Origin cheese, each step in the centuries-old process is tightly controlled yet relies heavily on the cheesemakers’ expertise rather than machines. 

Inside the production room forty copper vats were in various stages of cheese production, being worked by a small team of men dressed all in white from their ballcaps to their knee-length rubber boots. It was a mesmerizing sight.Each batch of Parmigiano Reggiano is made from an evening and a morning milking. Milk from the evening is separated overnight and only the skimmed milk is used for cheese. Since the farm is less than eight kilometres from the plant, the morning whole milk arrives still warm and is immediately divided into the vats and mixed with the skim milk from the previous evening. The mixture is warmed up, rennet is added and that’s when the magic begins. 

As we watched the milk transform into a yogurt-like texture, the cheesemakers aerated it with a gigantic whisk (we’re talking five feet tall) and constantly checked the cheese’s consistency. As the cheese started to firm up they would scoop some curds from the bottom of the vat and squeeze them to see how much water came out. Once satisfied, the cheesemakers corralled the 100 kilograms of cheese in each vat into a large square of muslin, then sliced it in half into what would eventually become two wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano. And that was only the first step!\

In the next white-walled room we watched more men in white uniforms wash the cheese and place each 50-kilogram ball into a hard plastic mould to begin shaping it. Compressing the cheese with a 10-kilogram disc on top, they turn the mould over every four hours to squeeze out the water. Then the wheels are put into a second, very important mould that will stamp the words Parmigiano Reggiano as well as the cheese identification number, date and approval number into the rind. That, said Fabiano, is how you can tell if you’re buying real, made-in-Italy Parmesan cheese; the rind will always say Parmigiano Reggiano.

Walking into the next room we found more cheese wheels in a third, more rigid type of mould, and cheese wheels submerged in a saltwater bath (the only preservative allowed in Parmigiano Reggiano). And then finally there it was; the curing room. Wheels of cheese as far as the eye could see. Neat stacks stretched up to the warehouse ceiling, with each row getting moderately darker as we moved towards the longer-aged cheeses. The smell of 27,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano is hard to describe, but a few words we’d use include glorious, indulgent and deeply satisfying. We all sniffed around the room profusely, well aware that we may never get the privilege again. We can, however, eat that cheese any time we’d like and so can you; all the Parmigiano Reggiano in our markets comes directly from Poggioli in Modena, Italy. So grab a chunk or two, maybe with a glass of Tuscan wine or a well-aged balsamic drizzle and have your own taste of Italy. Hairnet not required.

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