Parmigiano Reggiano, an Ancient Process of Tradition in Parma Italy

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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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.

serena peveri

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–it is still made the same way today that it was eight centuries ago, with the same appearance and the same extraordinary fragrance.

map of italyThe concept of naming foods after their place of origin dates back to the Roman Empire. Even after the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., people on the Italian peninsula continued to follow that practice. It was a convenient way to describe the food, but also showed pride in its making. By the early 14th century, Parmesan cheese had traveled from its place of origin in the Parma-Reggio region over the mountains to Tuscany, where ships departing from Pisa and Livorno carried it to other Mediterranean ports. The first recorded reference to Parmesan, in 1254, documents that a noble woman from Genoa traded her house for the guarantee of an annual supply of 53 pounds of cheese produced in Parma Italy.

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 decreed that Parmigiano Reggiano is the only hard cheese that can legally 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. These court rulings mean that a cheese cannot be called Parmesan unless it conforms to the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) standards for Parmigiano Reggiano. That consistency is safeguarded by a consortium that regulates the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese by approximately 350 small artisan dairies who 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!

Interview With Serena Peveri of Parma Italy

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, as 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.

parmigiano reggiano

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 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 which 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 a 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

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 integrated myself into the company.

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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 emmigrant who has been living in Canada since the 80’s–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

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

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 which forms is then broken down into minuscule granules using a traditional tool called “spino."

This is where fire comes into the picture, in a cooking process which reaches 55 degrees centigrade, after which the cheesy granules sink to the bottom of the cauldron forming a single mass. After resting for around thirty minutes, the cheese mass is removed, with deft movements, by the cheese maker.

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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.

After a few hours, a special marking band engraves the month and year of production onto the cheese, as well as its cheese dairy registration number and the unmistakable dotted 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.

parmigiano reggiano
Each cheese has used around 600 litres of milk and the constant care of the farmers and cheese masters. The cheese wheels are laid out in long rows in the 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. In fact, the minimum maturation time is twelve months, and only at this point can it be decided if each individual cheese is worthy of the name it was given at its birth.

During maturation, Parmigiano-Reggiano gains its typical granular structure, and when cut it into slivers, it becomes crumbly and soluble.

Gruppi di Acquisto as Regulators

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 a certain criteria or approach 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

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 collective purchase of goods and its provision with ethical purposes, social solidarity and environmental sustainability.”

Laws To Protect The Reputation of Regional Foods like 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 to the rules of the Consortium is entitled to bear the Parmigiano-Reggiano mark. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is a product with the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). 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 purpose of the law is to protect the reputation of the regional foods, promote rural and agricultural activity, help producers obtain a premium price for their authentic products, and eliminate the unfair competition and misleading of consumers by non-genuine products,which may be of inferior quality or of different flavor.

The Consortium oversees all dairy producers, which currently now number about 350. The E.U. PDO designation ensures that Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna, on the plains, hills and mountains enclosed 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 and Traditional Craftsmanship 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.

parmigiano reggiano

With his hammer, the expert taps the cheese at various points while listening carefully to the way the crust takes the blows. This tells him what is going on inside in much the same way as a stethoscope does. The cheese is then pierced with the screw-needle to extract a minute sample of the 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 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–by my family has been critical, and without their help I would not have been able to do certain things I wanted to.

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 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 family model; some want to defend the conservative model and for others you take to the streets to demonstrate your vision, even today.

Things Are Changing in Parma Italy

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 choices, and not enough space to let them make their own decisions… but I do think things are changing here in Italy!

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