Parmigiano Reggiano

Italy's Finest Cheese

By Amanda Philipow

Published November 2023

Practically everyone can agree that food is better when you add a little cheese. Especially when that cheese is Parmigiano Reggiano. 

We are always on the quest for the best possible products, and sometimes that search can take us far beyond our borders. Sunterra’s longstanding passion for authentic Parm was heightened back in 2018 when members of our leadership and management teams had the opportunity to visit Northern Italy. They were lucky enough to get an intimate look at how this famous cheese is created, and after seeing (and tasting) it firsthand, it was obvious that we had to introduce it into our markets.

Now, not just anyone can waltz into a tightly regulated cheese plant and expect a personal tour, so how did this special chance come to be? Fortunately, we were presented with an opportunity through our existing relationship with the Simonini family of Modena. As co-founders of Soleterra d’Italia, the Simoninis provide the Italian family recipes and expertise that help turn our Alberta-raised pork into delicious salamis, hams and cured meats under our Soleterra d’Italia brand. Through our relationship with the Simoninis, our team was then introduced to the Ferrarini family. The Ferrarinis have a wealth of knowledge in the world of cheese — in fact, their third-generation family farm provides the milk that eventually becomes this fantastic formaggio.

Crafting a cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano is no simple feat, largely due to its status as a certified DOP product. Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (or Protected Designation of Origin for those of us who aren’t quite fluent in Italian) is essentially a quality stamp of approval that can only be obtained by meeting several requirements. Firstly, the product must be produced within designated regions that result in certain characteristics. This means even if you have the exact ingredients required, Parmigiano isn’t true Parmigiano unless it’s made in one of a few selected regions of Italy, including Parma, Mantua and our stop: Modena. Secondly, the ingredients within the product must come from a specific location that has been designated by the government to produce the food. These locations, like the Ferrarini’s farm, are banned from using silage or fermented feed and must raise cattle fed only by locally grown forage. Finally, every part of the product must be tested and tracked with serial numbers to confirm the exact origins and history of the product. These strict regulations ensure that customers are always getting the “real deal” and will never be deceived by a low-quality or inauthentic recreation. In fact, DOP products are the only products that can use their exact name, too! Real DOP Parmigiano Reggiano is a far different product than the Parmesan cheese you’re used to seeing at the grocery store. If you see the letters “DOP”, you can be sure you’re getting the highest quality and best flavour around. 

With all these considerations in mind, our team was excited to begin the tour and see this iconic cheese come to life. Trained cheesemakers in white uniforms are dotted around a series of rooms, each dedicated to a specific stage of the production process. The tour began inside a large room housing 40 copper vats in various stages of the milk-to-cheese transformation. Each batch of cheese is made from an evening and a morning milking. The milk from the evening is separated overnight and only the skimmed milk will be used for cheesemaking. This skim milk is then combined with whole milk from the morning and warmed before adding special enzymes called rennet.

After a while, the milk develops into a thicker, more yogurt-like consistency as the cheesemakers aerate it with a huge five-foot whisk. The texture is consistently checked by hand-scooping curds from the bottom of the mixture and squeezing them to check their moisture content. Once the desired texture is achieved, the 100kg of cheese is pressed into a piece of muslin and sliced in half; each of these halves will eventually become a wheel of Parm! 

Next comes the shaping. Each 50kg cheese ball is compressed in a hard plastic mould with a heavy disc on top to help emit any excess water. Once complete, the cheese is placed in another mould which stamps the cheese’s name, identification number, approval number and production date into the rind. Looking for this embossing is the surest way to confirm you’re getting real Parmigiano Reggiano. After the stamping, the cheeses then make their way into a final rigid mould and are soaked in a saltwater bath for all-natural preservation. 

Then comes the hardest part — the waiting. Each wheel of Parm will cure in the massive(like, over 25,000 wheels massive) curing room for a minimum of 24 months. Over this two-year period, the cheese will darken into its signature golden colour and develop its one-of-a-kind flavour before being shipped around the world to lucky consumers like us. Fruity, sharp, complex and salty are only a few ways we like to describe the taste of Parmigiano, but there’s one that sums it up better than the rest: delicious. 

Though the production process of Parmigiano Reggiano may be time-consuming, strict and best left to the professionals, enjoying it definitely isn’t! We directly import about 250 wheels of this cheese to our markets every year, cutting out the need for any middleman and allowing food lovers across Alberta to enjoy it for a price comparable to that of a lesser quality “Parmesan” product. Not only that, we incorporate Parmigiano Reggiano into an assortment of prepared foods across our markets, too! To start, you can savour this cheesy goodness in our Sunterra Market-Made alfredo, four cheese alfredo and pesto alfredo pasta sauces, each packaged in a convenient reusable jar andready to heat up (don’t forget to return the jar for your deposit!). We also sprinkle it on top of hot pastas from our kitchens, include a wedge in many of our seasonal cheese boxes and so much more. 

At Sunterra, we’re committed to sharing our passion for high quality food and allowing our community to serve their families the best products on the market. If it can’t be made right in our markets, we’re dedicated to searching for the next best thing — even if it means travelling across the world to find Italy’s finest cheese. Whether you pick up a wedge for your own homemade recipe or simply enjoy its delectable flavour on your next trip to our kitchens, we hope you enjoy the story, flavour and experience that Parmigiano Reggiano has to offer. 

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