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The earliest documents which mention Parmigiano–Reggiano cheese date back to 1254. Its production in Soragna has been documented by historical records since the 1500s. Prince Casimiro Meli Lupi ordered the building of the cheese factory which today houses the Museum of Parmigiano–Reggiano. The factory was presumably build in the late 1840’s. The building is in the Neo-Classical style, with a circular floor plan and a colonnade. This choice of design showed great originality, and, even today, it is the only existing building of this type. The inside space of the Museum was set up as a cheese factory in the beginning of the 1900’s, and in this room is found the first part of the visit itinerary, which shows the different phases of the processing of milk into Parmigiano-Reggiano.
In the 1900’s, two additional rooms were added to the historical building – a salting room and a milk room. Here, the sections of the museum concerning the later steps of processing have been set up. In the downstairs salting room can be found the second part of the visit, regarding salting and the history of the finished product and its use in gastronomy. In the upstairs milk room is found the third part of the visit, and contains sections related to seasoning, product marketing, and the history of the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium.
Farmers brought milk to the cheese factory in the evening and early in the morning. To the left of the entrance, a weighing scale called stadéra can be found. It’s arm is fixed to the wall, and it has a milk bucket which was used for weighing. In the first years of the 1800’s milk was still measured by volume. In the Parma area, a bucket had a fixed volume capacity of 21.31 liters. The filling level was checked using a graduated wooden stick. Later on, the weighing scale was introduced, and this allowed for more accurate measuring. In the 1900’s, the use of metal barrels, especially 52-liter barrels, became popular. Examples of these can be seen in the museum.
On a shelf positioned next to the external wall, some metal basins can be found, while on the opposite side, towards the center of the building, a structure with three rectangular basins can be seen: these are tools used to cause the surfacing and separation of cream. Since Parmigiano-Reggiano is a partially fat cheese, it is necessary to eliminate part of the cream. This is done by taking advantage of milk’s natural characteristics. Cream, which has a lower specific weight, has a tendency to rise to the surface. In so doing, it carries with it most of the bacterial content present in the milk, which otherwise would cause undesired fermentation. After this, the milk brought to the factory in the evening was poured into basins where it rested until morning, when it was then skimmed. Milk which was delivered in the morning rested for a shorter period of time, that varied on the base of its acidity. It was then skimmed and mixed with the milk from the previous evening. In the basins, grease was collected using a skimming spoon called a spannarola, while in the larger vats, after the milk was drained out through a hole, the grease remained on the bottom: the skim milk obtained this way had an acidity content which was ideal for processing, and had a lower number of bacteria.
Resting against the external wall, two containers can be seen which were used to add serum to milk. This was obtained from the fermentation of some of the milk processed the previous day.The containers are two glass demijohns protected by a wicker encasing. The practice of adding serum was introduced relatively recently, and started to become widespread in 1905, noticeably contributing to an improvement of the product’s quality. This technique makes it possible to enrich the milk with enzymes which help the production of cheese. In order to mature correctly, the curd must contain a sufficient number of active lactic enzymes. 05. Section 5 – ProcessingOn the right side of the door can be seen some tools mounted on the wall: a spino – a cutting iron, a rotella – a wheel, a pala – a paddle, and a termometro – a thermometer, which were used by cheese makers while processing Parmigiano–Reggiano. Two boilers can be seen towards the center of the building. The oldest one, dating back to the 1800’s, was heated directly on a fire, while the other, dating from 1949, was heated using steam. At the beginning of the 1900s the processing technique required that the serum, the curd, and then an enzyme obtained from the stomach of baby calves be added to the milk, which was then poured into a conical shaped boiler containing about 450 liters. Once coagulation took place, the curd was first broken up into pieces the size of hazelnuts using a wheel, then using a cutting iron, it was broken into pieces the size of a corn kernel.In order to ease the outpouring of serum from the coagulated mass, this was stirred while the temperature was raised to 55°C. When the dairyman thought that the curd was sufficiently dry and cohesive to the touch, he told the “boiler man” who controller the fire to turn it off. After letting the curd rest a little at the bottom of the boiler, the mass was lifted using the paddle and was collected in a cloth. The curd was then inserted in a fascera – a mold, and was left to rest to allow the serum to be expelled.
After the tools used in processing, resting against the wall there is a board called a spersole: on this was positioned the fresh cheese closed in its mold and pressed by a weight. The board has a groove on its side to ease the draining of serum which came out of the mold. The serum was collected and used for feeding swine. A willow wood mold placed on the board can be seen. Inside of it, the curd would have been wrapped in a hemp or linen cloth.
As one proceeds towards the center of the building, two different types of boilers can be seen. They are made of copper and were used to cook the milk. The older one dates back to the second half of the 1800s and was heated directly on a wood fire. The fornacella or small furnace, with its brick wall, has been reconstructed on the basis of the designs of that time period. Next to it, a double bottom, or doppio fondo steam heated boiler from 1949 can be seen. Looking towards the dividing wall, the front panel of a horizontal steam generator can be seen. The fuel for the fire – either wood or coal – was introduced from the top, while an bin at the bottom made it possible to eliminate the ashes. The device transformed water into steam. The steam was sent to the boilers and to a steam engine as well. The engine transformed the energy of the high pressure steam into rotary motion which powered all of the machines in the cheese factory.Today, boilers are still made of copper, since this metal is an excellent heat conductor. Leaning on the perimeter wall of the building, a so called cavallino or little horse, can be noted. This is a mechanical device powered by steam, used to convey engine power to the cheese factory’s machines.
A glass display case on the wall introduces the section dedicated to the quality control of the milk destined to become Parmigiano-Reggiano. In it some tools used for testing are exhibited – they were simple but effective tools which came into use before World War II. There is a provino or glass sampler which can hold 50 cubic centimeters, a buretta or burette using for testing the acidity level of milk or serum, a density meter used to detect any possible additions of water to the milk, and a test tube holder used during the milk fermentation test. In the past, dairyman had only their senses to determine the quality of milk, and they used their abilities cleverly. For example, the margin of error in the temperature which was measured with one’s arm was plus or minus 1° C. In 1883 in Reggio Emilia, the Royal Zootechnology School began to perform the very first tests on milk and cheese. From the 1950s on, tests were made in all of the cheese factories.In the 1800s hygiene in cheese factories was rather poor. Floors were not paved, and the inside was blackened by soot, because wood fires were not lit in properly vented fireplaces.In the 1900s the situation improved remarkably, thanks to the increase of technical training for dairymen and to the availability of serum additions. Inside the glass case can also be seen a mazzerino, a tool used to clean the boilers, and a spatula used to clean the surfacing vats.
Butter production is done in three phases – skimming, churning, and shaping of the butter loaves. A mechanical skimming machine can be seen next to the glass case. Butter is obtained by beating the cream. Cream came mostly from the surfacing of the fat content of milk in special containers. However, a certain percentage of fat remained in the serum derived from cheese processing. In order to save the serum, mechanical skimmers were built which worked on the principles of centrifugal force. Moving towards the center of the cheese factory three different types of churns can be seen – one with a piston, one with a frame, and another with a barrel. The working principle is simple – beating the cream at a rather low temperature, a so called “inversion” takes place and fat solidifies, becoming butter. The small vertical churn is the oldest kind known. A second churn, with a turning crank, uses the principle of centrifugal force. The third churner has a horizontal cylinder and is called Reggiana: it was powered by the steam engine though a pulley connected to a lateral wheel. Going back towards the perimeter wall, a bascule or weighing scale of the kind in use at the beginning of 1900s can be seen. It was used mostly to weigh butter and small quantities of cheese. Butter was wrapped in special paper and was placed as a solid block into a case. Then, it was sent to butter factories. Next to this, on a small table of the kind used in cheese storage, a single loaf butter mold and a multiple loaves mold can be found. The latter is missing some parts. The last tool used by the dairyman was the segnarola – a stick with ridges which was used to spread the masses of butter when they were taken from the churn, and to clean them of the liquid that they may still contain.
Moving towards the center of the cheese factory, hanging on the central wall on the left, there is a panel with a precious collection of photographs from 1944. They portray the various phases of cheese production, and introduce us to the section dedicated to the iconography of Parmigiano-Reggiano. According to sources, this product was represented in artwork for the first time by Annibale Carracci around the year 1600. The processing phase was represented for the first time in a painting dating from 1890 by the artist Cirillo Manicardi from Reggio Emilia. The first movie clip to portray a form of Parmigiano-Reggiano dates from the period of the first World War, while the first movie clip representing cheese processing is from 1943.
Towards the perimeter wall, to the left of the entrance door can be found materials related to milk production in stables. This contains data about the bovine varieties mostly raised for milk production in the territory of Parma and Reggio Emilia – the Red Reggiana cow, also called Formentina, the White Cow of Modena, also called Carpigiana, the Dark Alpine, and the Black Spotted or Frisona variety.
Taking a few steps back, and going down a small staircase, we enter the salting room built in 1963. The room was partly excavated underground to guarantee a cool temperature, necessary for the salting phase of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Sea salt was dissolved in water to obtain a solution at the saturation point. Once the fresh cheese molds were placed in this bath, the serum still present in the milk was expelled thanks to the phenomenon of osmosis, while the saline solution entered into the cheese. Salting lasted about three weeks. Then, as it is still today, salt was used to dry the cheese and control undesired bacterial fermentation, rather than for seasoning taste.
Sect. 13 – Gastronomy
This section is divided into two parts – to the left of the stairs there is a glass case with an exhibit dedicated to gastronomy, while to the right of the stairs there is another case containing recipe books. The gastronomic history of Parmigiano-Reggiano begins with the famous quote of 1349 by Boccaccio in the Decameron, in which maccheroni pasta with cheese is mentioned. In the glass case, recipes taken from the most famous cookbooks dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries are displayed.
Sect. 14 – The evolution of Parmigiano-Reggiano through the centuries
Remaining in the salt room and turning towards the right, a series of wall panels can be seen, telling the history of Parmigiano-Reggiano throughout the centuries.
At the end of the historical exhibit, on the northern wall of the salting room, to the left of the entrance, a section dedicated to the architecture of cheese factories is located. The self standing quadrangular structure is a type of very ancient building, still common in the 1800s. The quadrangular structure joined to a complex can be found in many surviving historical buildings and was well documented in the 1600s. The self standing polygon structure was a classical type of building of the Reggio area of the end of the 1800s. The polygon structure annexed to a complex was also typical of the Reggio area around the end of 1800s.The modern quadrangular structures are different from the ancient ones because all elements of production are found together in one building – the milk room, the processing room, the salting room and the storage area. The circular structure is extremely rare. The Meli–Lupi cheese factory, as already mentioned, is the only known example of it.
Leaving the salting room, we return to the cheese factory and turn right, going up the stairs which lead to the milk room on the upper level.Tapping.Tapping is a system used to evaluate the quality of the product. Experts tapped the surface of the seasoned cheese mold with a special hammer to understand from its sound the presence of any possible cavities due to undesired bacterial fermentation or cracks. This process is still followed today. Molds with cracks or cavities are sold at a lower price. To have an idea of the aroma of cheese, a special needle with a screw, called goccia or drop, is used. This is inserted under the crust of the cheese and is then smelled by an expert.
Continuing our visit along the northern wall of the Milk Room, after the tools used for tapping, the tools used for seasoning can be found. A cheese cart, a movable bench, and part of a large ladder used in the storage room can be seen, the ladder serving also as a display for various models of increasingly larger Parmigiano-Reggiano molds used through the centuries.It should be noted that the earliest molds are not very thick, due to the fact that they were dry salted. Once the more efficient method of salting by immersion was introduced at the beginning of the 1900s, the thickness was increased progressively. A large cheese scale from the 1800s is also displayed at the end of this section.
After the storage room tools, going along the eastern wall of the milk room, there is a glass display showing the history of the Consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano. In 1612 the Duke Ranuccio Farnese, to protect against fraudulent imitations, decreed by a special edict that only cheese made and seasoned in the Parma area, and more precisely in the Duke’s own dairy stables, could be called Parmigiano.Therefore the controlled denomination of origin is rooted in the history of several centuries. But the real birth of the entity to protect this product was long and complex.By the beginning of the 1900s, there was an evident necessity to protect the denomination of origin from cases of imitation or appropriation of the name, which by then was already extremely popular both in Italy and worldwide.After various attempts to create an entity, cheese producers, setting aside their own interests during the grave crises of 1934, organized a “Voluntary Interprovincial Consortium of Typical Grana”. Most of the area producers joined from the provinces of Parma, Reggio, Modena, and the area of Mantova on the left bank of the Po river.In 1937 the area of the province of Bologna on the left bank of the Reno river joined as well. In the years following World War II, after the Stresa conference of 1951, when the Origin of Denomination of Cheeses was recognized on an international level, the name of the cheese became “Parmigiano-Reggiano”. The Consortium, which was recognized in 1954 under the name of Consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese, carries on activities to defend and protect the Denomination of Origin, favoring the commerce and diffusion of the product, promoting any initiative aimed at safeguarding the typicality and the particular characteristics of the product.In this aspect, the service of expertise and the trademark sealing of cheese are very important. The Consortium defines the standards of quality and the regulations for production, among which are the rules regarding bovine nutrition. It also publicizes and promotes the product. The Parmigiano Reggiano denomination of origin was recognized as valid throughout the European Union in 1996.
Proceding towards the opposite side of the room, in the space between the two staircases, there is a section dedicated to the commercialization of the product. There are some noteworthy advertising posters from the beginning of the 1990s, some metal markings applied to the molds to identify the producers, and a wicker basket which in the past was used to ship the molds.
Concluding the visit to the museum, to the right of the exit, there is a video which presents a summary of the traditional wood fire processing methods of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The video compares the traditional methods to modern production techniques, which have left unaltered the richness of the historical experience accumulated through the centuries.