The History of Parmigiano Reggiano from an Artisanal Cheese-Maker

Updated on January 3, 2024 by Meg Pier

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese from Parma Italy is a beloved Italian ingredient that truly makes for "La Dolce Vita". Serena Peveri is a third-generation member of her family's artisanal cheese-making enterprise, Ciaolatte, located in Borghetto, not far from Parma in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.

We had the pleasure of meeting with Serena, and it's a privilege to share with you her personal explanation of the history and cultural significance of Parmigiano Reggiano, how it's made, and how it's protected as an authentic product of Parma.

Serena explained to us that during the High Middle Ages, the Benedictine monks of the area around the city of Parma Italy started producing the distinctive hard cheese now known as Parmigiano Reggiano. She was proud to say it is still made the same way today that it was eight centuries ago, with the same appearance and the same extraordinary fragrance.

The concept of naming foods after their place of origin dates back to the Roman Empire. The tradition of making Parmesan cheese persisted on the Italian peninsula even after the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. Referring to the cheese as Parmesan was not only a convenient way to describe it but also a source of pride in its craftsmanship.

By the early 14th century, Parmesan cheese had made its way from the Parma-Reggio region to Tuscany, transported via ships departing from Pisa. Livorno carried it to other Mediterranean ports. The first recorded mention of Parmesan cheese dates back to 1254 when a noblewoman from Genoa exchanged her house for an annual supply of 53 pounds of the cheese produced in Parma Italy.

serena peveri
Third-generation Parmigiano Reggiano cheesemaker Serena Peveri. Photo: Meg Pier

It’s said that the French playwright Molière, seeking to prolong his life, decided to live on 12 ounces of Parmesan and three glasses of port a day. His fad diet had merit from a nutritional standpoint because Parmigiano Reggiano is rich in protein and easy to digest.

In 2008, European courts legally established that only the hard cheese meeting the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) standards of Parmigiano Reggiano could be called Parmesan. In so doing, they acknowledged the historical fact that the word can be traced to Parma Italy, and that consumers associate the cheese with its origin in the Parma-Reggio region of Italy.

This ruling ensures that cheese can only be labeled as Parmesan if it adheres to the strict PDO standards of Parmigiano Reggiano, eliminating misleading and inferior quality products. That consistency is safeguarded by a consortium that regulates the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese by approximately 350 small artisan dairies that preserve the traditional processing method.

The Peveri family of Ciaolatte are among those 350 standard-bearers of this ancient tradition. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Serena and the glimpse she provides of the skill, heart, and soul that go into producing this tasty morsel of history!

Serena's Take on Italian Cuisine

Meg: As someone who produces a product that is a staple of the Italian table, can you share your thoughts on what makes Italian food so special?

Serena: Italian cuisine is an important foundation for our culture, and a strong part of our identity, the role is very prestigious because it unites us and makes us feel part of a group or community.

Italian cuisine is internationally renowned because it is part of our DNA to appreciate high-quality products for their taste and freshness, for their craftsmanship, and for their inimitable history.

One of my favorite personal memories is of when I was little, and my grandmother preparing gnocchi on a large wooden board and then cooking the fresh pasta for me and my brother after school.

Gnocchi with truffle

I preferred them white while my brother Dario liked them with tomato sauce. They were simply extraordinary with a knob of butter and a lot of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese! My mom cannot make them equal so I savor that memory from the past.

Emilia Romagna as Gastronomical Haven

Meg: Emilia Romagna is acknowledged within Italy as having the country’s best food. Why do you think that is?

Serena: Emilia Romagna is considered the cradle of good cuisine and recognized to have some of the best food globally, such as the Parmesan cheese, Parma ham or Culatello from Zibello or the Felino salami, and even the balsamic vinegar or mushroom Borgotaro and the wide range of pasta especially Tagliatelle Bolognesi and various types of tortellini and beloved Anolini in Parma Italy. These are just some of the many products recognized with marks of protection.

I think our region is regarded as one of the best gastronomical havens primarily for the presence of these excellent products. Also, in recent years well-known or up-and-coming local chefs have integrated our strong culinary tradition with their creative imagination.

The features that allow the true king of cheeses to be produced in this one area of origin are from the first Regulation for the Feeding of Dairy Cattle in 1957 according to which the feeding of cows was to be based on local forage, to be preserved by the traditional drying process (haymaking) and the use of fermented forage, such as maize silages, was banned.

The natural taste of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese means using milk that has its own microbiological balance. That balance, which consists of the lactic bacteria that is naturally present in the milk and is typical of the area of origin, is cultivated in the dairy process. These are the reasons why Parmigiano-Reggiano is a true combination of nature and knowledge.

Origins of Ciolatte's Production of Parmigiano Reggiano

Meg: Tell me about your family’s business.

Serena: There are five of us in the family and we are all involved in running Ciaolatte. My father is the boss; my mom takes care of our educational programs and the B & B, and my brother Dario is the expert Parmigiano cheese maker. The great little Filippo is in charge of livestock farming–he currently is studying economics at university. Me, I am the “black sheep” because I wanted to travel, experience foreign cultures, and study before integrating myself into the company.

parmigiano reggiano

The origins of Ciaolatte go back to my grandfather, when he moved from Piacenza to Parma Italy and began farming with a small herd of Friesian cows in the late ’50s.

Years later my father expanded the farm and, after a trip to South Africa and Brazil, undertook to restore the dairy, then the restaurant and store. The property was bought from an Italian emigrant who has been living in Canada since the 80s–the place was falling apart before we began restoring it.

In 2010 my father invested in the space to create a maturing room for Parmesan cheese to avoid paying monthly rent to third parties.

My father is very motivated to invest more in our work and improve our capabilities every single day. This clearly means great sacrifices but incredible rewards along the way.

parmigiano reggiano
Serena Peveri and her brother carry on the family tradition of making Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Photo: Meg Pier

Following the Natural Rhythm of Seasons

Meg: Can you describe the production process?

Serena: Every day, the milk from the evening milking is left to rest until morning in large vats, where the fatty part spontaneously rises to the surface. This is used for the production of butter.

cheese-making process
Cheese-making artisans stir skimmed milk in copper cauldrons as part of the process. Photo: Meg Pier

As soon as the whole milk from the morning milking arrives from the farm, the skimmed milk from the night before is poured into the typical bell-shaped copper cauldrons. Calf rennet (a mammal enzyme) and fermented whey are then added in–these were obtained from the previous day’s processing and are both rich in natural lactic ferments.

The milk coagulates in around ten minutes, and the curd that forms is then broken down into minuscule granules using a traditional tool called “spino."

The cheese-making process involves heating it to 55 degrees Celsius, causing the cheesy granules to sink and form a solid mass at the bottom of the cauldron. After resting for approximately thirty minutes, the cheese mass is skillfully removed by the cheese maker.

parmigiano reggiano
Photo: Meg Pier

Each Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese is Unique

Cut into two parts and wrapped in its typical cloth, the cheese is then placed in a mold which will give it its final shape. Each cheese is given a unique, progressive number and this number remains with it just like an identity card.

A distinctive marking band is then used to engrave the month, year of production, cheese dairy registration number, and the iconic dotted pattern onto the cheese inscriptions around the complete circumference of the cheese wheel, which is then, after a few days, immersed in a water and salt-saturated solution. It is a process of salting by absorption which, within less than a month, closes the production cycle and opens the cycle of maturation.

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Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is stamped with information that certifies its authenticity. Photo: Meg Pier

Each cheese has used around 600 liters of milk and the constant care of the farmers and cheese masters. The cheese wheels are carefully arranged in long rows within silent maturation rooms. The cheese is allowed to rest on wooden tables where the outside of the cheese dries forming a natural crust without being treated in any way and therefore remaining perfectly edible.

The story of Parmigiano-Reggiano is a long one, and also slow, following the natural rhythm of the seasons. The minimum maturation time for Parmigiano-Reggiano is twelve months, allowing each cheese to be evaluated for its quality and deserving of its name.

During the maturation process, Parmigiano-Reggiano develops its characteristic granular texture, becoming crumbly and easily soluble when sliced.

Italy's Fair Trade Groups Ensure Quality of Parmigiano Reggiano

Meg: Ciaolatte sells its products to members of a specific group who seek out organically-produced food & goods. Can you explain how it works?

Serena: Most of our customers are fair trade groups, called Gruppi di Acquisto in Italian or GAS for short. These buying groups are organized spontaneously–for example, a group may be comprised of fifty families–who agree on certain criteria or approaches to consumption and want to apply principles of fairness, solidarity, and sustainability to their purchases, mainly food or other consumer goods. Usually, GAS suppliers are small producers so it is easy to establish direct contacts and build relationships that enrich the experiences and life behind every product. Each GAS also organizes meetings with suppliers and visits their companies. Each GAS elects members to handle different administrative tasks and the group shares the small operating expenses.

parmigiano reggiano
Photo: Meg Pier

Within the vast panorama of GAS are recognized associations, non-recognized associations (of which there are many informal groups), and cooperatives. The GAS may be organized into territories. They are a smart way to buy products.

The history of GAS began in 1994 in Fidenza, which is very close to us. In 1996, GAS published the Guide to Critical Consumption, where they provide information on the behavior of the leading companies in order to drive consumer choice. In 1997, GAS formally became a “non-profit set up to carry out the collective purchase of goods and its provision with ethical purposes, social solidarity and environmental sustainability.”

Laws Protect The Reputation of Parmigiano Reggiano

Meg: Ciaolatte is a member of a consortium and its products have to pass a test by experts who examine each wheel of cheese. Can you describe what they look for?

Serena: In 1901, the Chamber of Commerce of Reggio Emilia proposed to establish a trade union between producers and traders of cheese to authenticate the origin of the product to be exported. It wasn’t until 1928 that the voluntary Consortium for the Protection of the Grana Reggiano (Reggiano Hard Cheese) was established. Only cheese produced in accordance with the rules of the Consortium is entitled to bear the Parmigiano-Reggiano mark. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese holds the prestigious Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. Among its many tasks, the Consortium is responsible for protecting, monitoring, and safeguarding Parmigiano Reggiano PDO.

PDO is based on a European Union Regulation that ensures that only products genuinely originating in that region are allowed to be identified as such in commerce. The law serves multiple purposes, including safeguarding the reputation of regional foods, fostering rural and agricultural activity, enabling producers to command premium prices for their authentic products, and preventing unfair competition and consumer deception arising from non-genuine products of inferior quality or varying flavors.

Parmigiano Reggiano
Photo Credit: Ciaolatte's Facebook

The Consortium, responsible for overseeing all dairy producers, currently manages approximately 350 members. Under the European Union's PDO designation, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is produced solely within the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and specific regions of Mantua and Bologna. This production takes place across the picturesque landscapes of plains, hills, and mountains that are encompassed between the rivers Po and Reno. This area is home to four thousand farms where the cattle are fed on locally grown forage.

Ancient Methods Define Parmigiano Reggiano

Another requirement is that the Parmigiano-Reggiano has been produced according to ancient methods and traditional craftsmanship, defined by strict rules, which requires precise production methods, controlled feeding of the cows and specific marketing rules.

The Consortium is responsible for tagging in accordance with the specifications of the PDO. Each wheel must display all the marks required for identifying and distinguishing the product. These marks are subdivided into marks of origin and grade selection marks.

The experts of the Consortium examine each cheese one by one. Professional cheese-testers approach a Parmigiano-Reggiano with something not unlike the kind of gravity Harley Street doctors reserve for important patients. They hold the cheese-owner in suspense until all of the above eight points have been thoroughly checked.

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Expert hammer taps reveal the maturity of the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Photo: Meg Pier

With his hammer, the expert taps the cheese at various points while listening carefully to the way the crust takes its blows. This method provides insight into the internal processes, much like a stethoscope helps a doctor understand what is happening inside a patient. Subsequently, a screw needle is used to delicately pierce the cheese, extracting a tiny sample of its contents. The resistance of the cheese indicates something of its internal consistency, and the sample enables the expert to judge the aroma and degree of maturation. The sampling dowel is resorted to only in exceptional cases when the aforementioned methods have failed to elicit a diagnosis.

The Institution of Family

Meg: It seems the institution of “family” is particularly significant in Italian culture. Do you think the role of the family in Italy has changed at all?

Serena: In my past experiences, I always wanted and tried to fend for myself, but often the support–including economic–from my family has been critical, and without their help, I would not have been able to do certain things I wanted to.

The cialatte family
The Ciaolatte family. Photo: Ciaolatte's Facebook.

I consider family, however, you define it–including without involving a marriage–in Italy as a nucleus, a kind of “institution” with whom to share and often meet and clash. Because our parents are part of another generation with different schools of thought, it is inevitable to have discussions or even confrontations on any issue. For example, it remains a fact that because of politics and the Catholic church, today gay marriage is still not recognized in Italy. There’s a strong rift between the two models and two different ways of thinking, some more conservative and others more liberal. If we look out from our beautiful country, my own view is that we are still outdated as a family model; some want to defend the conservative model and for others you take to the streets to demonstrate your vision, even today.

I like my family, I love my parents–because of their sacrifices made in the past, I can afford a more than decent lifestyle. The downside in my opinion about the institution of family in Italy is that it often has a strong influence on their child’s growth, in good faith of course, but parents generally prefer that their children remain close to home to study or work, consequently boys and girls who are 30/40 years sometimes still live with their mother and don’t know how to do laundry! There’s often too much pressure on the children's choices and not enough space to let them make their own decisions… but I do think things are changing here in Italy!

Planning to Visit Emilia Romagna?

The Northern Italian province of Emilia Romagna is a fascinating synthesis of knowledge, culture, and delectable cuisine. Emilia Romagna stretches from the Po River in the north to the Apennine Mountains to the south, with the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Piedmont region to the west. It spans approximately 8,500 square miles, making it roughly 150 miles wide and 100 miles in length.

Getting To Emilia Romagna

Getting to Emilia Romagna is convenient, thanks to various flight options. Several international airports serve the region, including Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport, which is the primary gateway to Emilia Romagna. Other airports in the region, such as Parma Airport and Rimini Federico Fellini Airport, also offer international connections.

Traveling within  Emilia Romagna by train is convenient, with well-connected rail networks linking the region to major Italian cities and neighboring countries. The region's main train stations, such as Bologna Centrale, provide easy access to various destinations within Emilia Romagna.

Want the freedom to explore the scenic countryside and lovely towns of Emilia Romagna at your own pace? Rent a car and enjoy cruising along the back roads of Emilia Romagna!

Ready to investigate logistics? Visit our Travel Resources page!

Pietra bismantova mountain italy
Pietra Bismantova. Image Credit: Paolo da Reggio / Wiki Commons

Emilia Romagna Lay of the Land

Let us give you the lay of the land with an overview of a few of the highlights of this amazing part of Italy.

Ferrara in Italy is a captivating Renaissance city, renowned for its well-preserved medieval architecture, enchanting canals, and rich culinary traditions.

The wetlands of the Po River Delta in Italy are a mesmerizing expanse of lush vegetation, teeming with diverse wildlife and offering breathtaking vistas of natural beauty.

Discover Goro a picturesque fishing village nestled in the heart of the Po River Delta, which will charm you with its tranquil canals, colorful houses, and abundant seafood delicacies.

Enjoy the delicious cuisine of Parma, the area that is the origin of Parmigiano Reggiano, as well as world-renowned Prosciutto di Parma, and Balsamic vinegar from Modena.

Admire the captivating Mosaics in Ravenna, which serve as a reminder of the area's rich creative history.

Uncover the wonders of Emilia-Romagna, where historical marvels, gastronomic delights, and a captivating experience await.

Where to Stay in Emilia Romagna

We always stay in character properties that are comfortable, friendly, and offer a sense of local history and style. Here are our suggestions for places to consider as you book your trip!

In Ferrara, these properties offer stylish comfort and easy access to the city’s historic sites Borgoleoni 18, Piazza Nove Guest House and Princess Art Hotel.

Our picks for a memorable stay in Bologna include Aemilia Hotel Bologna, PHI HOTEL BOLOGNA and Hotel Corona d'Oro.

Escape to the country with these Agrotourismo digs in Parma! Agriturismo Argaland, a private villa, and La Rondanina.

Popular, refreshing, and relaxing spots in the Po Delta, include Agriturismo Nonno Mario and Tenuta Ca' Zen.

Hotel Bologna Italy
Hotel Bologna Italy. Photo: Hotel Corona D'Oro Bologna (Italy)

Food Tours in Emilia Romagna

The cuisine of Emilia Romagna is world-renowned. Here are some amazing food excursions, which are designed to please your taste senses while immersing you in the rich culinary traditions of each location. Check out our best selections for a delectable voyage through Emilia Romagna.

Three delicious gastronomy experiences we recommend in Bologna are a private pasta-making class, a Wine tasting tour, and a 3-hour secret food tour.

Here’s a taste of tantalizing food tours in Modena! Lambrusco Wine Tasting, 3-hour Cooking Class, and a Private 4-Course Meal.

Sample the aromas and flavors of Ferrara with these savory excursions! Home Dining Experience and Home Cooking Class.

Get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Italian cuisine with one of these tours in Parma! Markets and Cooking Class, and a Museum of Pasta Entry Ticket.

Bologna sfoglinia cooking italian food
Bologna sfoglinia cooking. Photo: Bologna Tour

Bon Appetit in Emilia Romagna! If you’re a Foodie, then check out more on culinary arts around the world!

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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