Hard Italian Cheese

Given the popularity of Mozzarella cheese and Italian cuisine, in general, it is not surprising that production of other Italian cheeses, such as Parmesan, Romano, and other hard grating types, have increased by more than 120% in the last twenty years.Although Parmesan is the prototype of the hard Italian grating type cheeses, there are many variations of this cheese, including Romano,Asiago, and Grana.

As recently as 2002, the Food and Drug Administration's official Standard of Identity for Parmesan was changed to accommodate newer methods of manufacturing, such that less aging was required. In contrast, Parmesan made in Italy must conform to rigid manufacturing procedures if it is to be called Parmi-giano Reggiano.The milk, for example, must be obtained from cows raised in a specific region

(the Po Valley) and fed a specified diet. Only raw milk can be used, and it must be standardized in a specific manner (which includes a natural creaming step). Calf rennet is used for coagulation. The cheese is ultimately aged for at least twelve months, but usually longer (two to three years). Despite these considerable challenges, annual production of Parmigiano Reggiano is still rather high (about 100 million kg); however, even in Italy it is expensive (often more than $18 per Kg). Recently, the European Union ruled that only cheese made following these prescribed procedures could be called Parmesan. Other famous European cheeses, including Roquefort and Feta, have received similar EU protections (the so called Designation of Protected Origin or DPO).

In the United States, where manufacturers are not bound by EU rules, Parmesan is made from cow milk standardized to about 2.4% to 2.8% fat. The milk is inoculated with a ther-mophilic culture and rennet is added. The curds are cut to give small curds, similar to Swiss, cooked to 45 to 48°C, and stirred for up to forty-five minutes. Some acid development during the stir-out step occurs, and when the pH reaches about 5.9, the whey is drained.The curds are placed into forms and pressed for twelve to sixteen hours, during which time the thermophilic culture ferments the lactose. Next, the cheese is brined for two weeks and dried for up to six weeks (to obtain a moisture content of 32%). Aging is essential for Parmesan cheese, and until recently, ten months of aging was required to satisfy the U.S. Standards of Identity (and to produce good flavor).

In 1999, Kraft successfully petitioned the FDA to permit cheese aged for a minimum of six months, instead of the nine months, to be called Parmesan, provided the original characteristics and properties were still maintained. Apparently, the use of enzyme technologies, combined with a slight increase in ripening temperatures, can produce a cheese that, while not intended to be the quality equivalent of a traditional, well aged Parmesan, still has a clean and acceptable flavor that is quite suitable as a grating cheese. One of the more popular varia tions of Parmesan, Romano, is made in a similar manner as Parmesan, but it contains lipase and, at least in Italy, is made from sheep's milk.

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