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Italy’s famous cheeses have to abide by rules

Strict feeding regimes, traditional production methods and legal protection all help one of the world’s most iconic cheeses to thrive and deliver a premium for Italian dairy farmers. Cedric Porter has just returned from a visit to Parma.

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The rules of Italian parmigiano! #cheese #Italy

First things first, parmesan is not the real deal, but rather the generic term for a hard cheese which could be made almost anywhere. No, the real deal is Parmigiano Reggiano. It can only be produced in a relatively small area in Northern Italy around the city of Parma.


In the past, native red and white cows were used, but with the advent of milking machines in the 20th Century, there was a move to Friesians. Diets are strict with silage banned because of the risk of contamination from clostridia spores which could affect the maturation of the cheese.


It’s true additives could prevent the development of clostridia, but all such artificial elements are banned too.


Fresh fodder or hay is allowed in the diet, but it must have been harvested in the Parmigiano Reggiano area and make up at least 50% of the diet. Having a fresh fodder or hay diet ensures lower acidity rates in the cheese.


Alalfa is the mainstay of most diets. Concentrates can be used, but as well as the standard omission of animal-based ingredients, palm and coconut oils cannot be used in a ration because of its effect on the cheese.


Some by-products are also restricted.



The restrictions inevitably impact on the cost of producing milk, although it seems to have little impact on yield, which averages a reasonable 7300 litres a cow a year. The payback, of course, is a milk price premium, with current prices at 0.40/litre (28.4ppl) compared to 0.33/litre (23.4ppl) for standard milk in Italy.


The uniqueness of Parmigiano Reggiano began to evolve more than 800 years ago when monks needed a way to preserve milk from their remote monastery herds. The evening milk is skimmed and left overnight and by 8am it is mixed with the morning milk and piped into vats. Using a combination of a giant food mixer and plenty of human muscle, milk is mixed and heated with natural whey and rennet added.


Eventually, small globules of curd are formed. A master cheesemaker oversees the formation of these curds as they develop.


They are then bound together using We try to persuade retailers and restaurants to only use Parmigiano Reggiano when they advertise dishes containing the cheese Simone Ficarelli a special crunchy texture. Simone Ficarelli, head of international marketing at the Parmigiano Reggiano consortium, says at the heart of the cheese’s success is protecting wrapped bales cheesecloths into a beachball- sized globe which is divided into two.


The two parts are then forced into a mould where after resting they are stamped with the name of the dairy and date of the batch. It takes 550 litres of milk to make a 40kg wheel of cheese. Remaining milk is sold for pig feed, often to producers of hams destined for the region’s world- famous Prosciutto di Parma.


After immersion in salt water for 20 days, the wheels of cheese are stacked on freestanding shelves up to 20 high. They are left in temperature-controlled conditions for up to three years.


After a year, a tester from the Parmigiano Reggiano consortium tests the cheese with a small hammer, determining its quality according to the sound and vibrations given off. A two- to three-year-old cheese has a unique nutty and salty taste with amino acid crystals adding special crunchy texture.


Simone Ficarelli, head of international marketing at the Parmigiano Reggiano consortium, says at the heart of the cheese’s success is protecting its quality and provenance.


“The consortium determines and monitors how the cheese can be made and is responsible for its promotion around the world. Only cheese which is made at one of the dairies approved by the consortium can use the Parmigiano Reggiano name and official mark.

Shelved cheese
selective diet


“Each dairy has to pay a €6 payment per wheel to the consortium.


This payment goes to inspecting cheese, its promotion and protecting the integrity of the brand.”


The job of protecting Parmigiano Reggiano was made easier when it was granted protected designation of origin status by the European Union in 1996. This gives legal protection to the product and prevents anyone from using the product name within the European Union.


Mr Ficarelli says: “The reputation of Parmigiano Reggiano is so strong there is always a danger people will want to say their cheese is Parmigiano Reggiano when it is not.


“We also try to persuade retailers and restaurants to only use Parmigiano Reggiano when they advertise dishes containing the cheese. Sometimes they will mix in other cheeses to reduce the cost.”


The latest battle the Parmigiano Reggiano consortium is fighting is against moves by the European Commission to insist Italy allows the use and importation of powdered and concentrated milk in the production of its cheese as a current ban is a restraint on trade.


Italian cheesemakers say the ban has helped them distinguish and develop their products. A matured two-year-old cheese will sell for about 15/kg (£10.65/kg), which is comparable to some mature artisan cheddars. However, the global downturn in the dairy industry has had an effect on the price of the product.


One-year cheese was trading at €7.86/kg (£5.58/kg) in May, and although this was up on prices at the start of the year, it was down on prices a year before when it trad- ed at €9.09/kg (£6.45/kg) – a 22% difference In 2014, Italian sales accounted for 63% of the 3.279 million wheel (132,000 tonne) output. Germany was the largest export market at 7.8% of all sales, followed by France (7.5%), the USA (6.6%) and then the UK at 4.7%.


Sales to Russia were significant for some individual dairies, but its import ban on dairy products has had less effect on overall sales. Mr Ficarelli sees a lot of potential for specialist artisan cheeses with a strong heritage to strengthen their identity and develop new markets.


“For smaller and specialist producers, there is no future in trying to compete with large-scale cheesemakers who will always have a price advantage. Smaller players must focus on ensuring quality and highlighting what makes their cheese special and different from the rest.”


Global To that end, Parmigiano Reggiano has worked closely with specialist cheesemakers across the world, including the Cheese of Choice Coalition in the USA and Randolph Hodgson in the UK.


The latter is the driving force behind Neal’s Yard Dairy, a seller of specialist cheese from 70 British dairies. Although the UK has some very notable protected cheeses and indeed organisations which help protect them, it still lags behind Italy.


There, 15% of its national milk output is devoted to Parmigiano Reggiano, with 48 other protected cheeses taking the total milk devoted to specialist premium cheese production to around the 25% mark.

UK cheeses with protected designation of origin (PDO) or protected geographical indication (PGI) status



Year awarded

Beacon Fell Traditional






Buxton Blue






Exmoor Jersey Blue



Orkney Scottish Island Cheddar



Single Gloucester






Stilton – white and blue









West Country Farmhouse Cheddar



Yorkshire Wensleydale



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