PARMA, ITALY – Antonio Malpeli gazes proudly at the towering rounds of Parmesan in his small factory and declares one thing sure: the medieval monk recipe that is used to make this Italian delicacy will never change.
Malpeli, who boasts arms worthy of a boxer after three decades of stirring immense vats of frothing milk, wears modern rubber overalls and boots but describes himself as a “descendent” of the Benedictine monks behind the cheese.
“The monks discovered the cheese while looking for a way to conserve milk. The method was then passed down through the centuries,” the 47-year-old Italian said. “The technology has been refined a bit, but the fundamental concept has remained the same. It will not change,” he added, standing in front of the huge wooden shelves supporting rounds loving produced over the past two years.
“The secret of good Parmesan lies in good milk — the cows have to eat the correct feed — and also in the art of cheese-making,” he said with a smile.
The cooperative Malpeli works for in the town of Sala Berganza, which lies at the foot of green hills near Parma in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, currently produces 32 cheeses a day and around 11,000 a year.
It is one of close to 400 sites producing Parmigiano-Reggiano DOC — a controlled designation-of-origin status that was obtained in 1996 — by which Parmesan must be produced within regional boundaries and under strict quality controls.
The first written references to Parmesan date back to 1254. The methods for making the popular cheese were conjured up in the large monasteries in the area by monks looking for a long-term way of conserving the milk produced by the many cows they used to help them work the fields.
Experiments over time led them to opt for large rounds — modern ones weigh 40 kg on average and use 600 liters of milk — which are then dried over a minimum of 12 months, although some sit for up to 48 months.
They are then put to a sound test: each round is tapped with a special small metal hammer by workers from the Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium, who listen for hollow sounds that would indicate it is not top quality.
The aim is to protect the brand’s reputation — no mean task for a product that has been counterfeited thousands of times, sparking long legal and commercial battles.
“Forgery is a problem. The consortium has been cracking down on it, but it happens all over the place,” said Malpeli, who learned the trade from his father, and is the fourth generation of cheese makers in his family.
The sector has been bouncing back after two earthquakes last year in the Emilia Romagna region caused extensive damage to Parmesan maturing cellars.
“The system remained standing. Those who suffered damages have begun producing again, its passed,” said Malpeli, whose factory was spared.
Total Parmesan production reached 3.3 million rounds last year, up 2.3 percent on the previous year, and the industry is looking to boost exports.
It has its eye on far-flung China in particular. Around 85 tons of Parmesan were exported to China last year out of some 2,245 tons overall to Asia, where the fruity taste is making an impression on palates.
The consortium aims to up sales abroad and be exporting half of its production within the next five years.