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Parmigiano Reggiano
delle Vacche Rosse
By Roy Stevenson

Cheese connoisseurs know the delights of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO (protected designation of origin). Italy's culinary gift to the world is grated on pasta, added to soups. used to complete risotto and eaten on its own.

All cheese starts with the milk and all milk starts with the animal. In the case of Parmigiano Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse, that animal is the Reggiana, the red cow - or Vacche Rosse - of Reggio Emilia.

What's so special about this cheese? How can one varietal differ so much from its parent cheese? To understand the answer to this question, cheese lovers must first understand a little about the history of all Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Historic documents show that the Parmigiano produced in the 13th and 14th centuries, primarily by Benedictine and Cistercian monks, is very similar to today’s Parmigiano, so when you eat a slice of Parmigiano, you’re eating a slice of history. And today’s makers of Parmigiano still persist in making their cheese by rigorously adhering to centuries-old methods.

But Vacche Rosse has an even more exclusive pedigree than this. Around 568A.D, the Barbarian invaders of the Roman Empire brought with them herds of a particular type of cow with a distinctive red wheat colored coat, which they had robbed from the plains of southern Russia and the Ukraine.

The Vacche Rosse tends to be large with a long trunk and a distinct long head, and above all, yields a high concentration of casein and proteins from their milk compared with Fresian cows. In addition the Vacche Rosse contains a higher proportion of calcium, phosphorous, glutamate, and citric acid. All of these properties encourage the milk to curdle into a much thicker whey, with better fat emergence, stronger fermentation, using a longer, slower, cooking process. Vacche Rosse milk is not pasteurized nor treated with anti-fermentives.

This is one rare cow. There were only 1,000 head of Vacche Rosse in 1980. Fortunately, this number has been increased to 2,300 on a total of 179 Northern Italy farms. As you can imagine, the breeding of a cow that produces such unique and expensive cheese is strictly controlled to maintain the rusticity and authenticity of the breed, and to ensure maximum milk production.

They are prized so much that each red cow is registered in the Reggiano’s breed Genealogic Book. The Italian governing board for Reggiano, Reggiano Breeder’s National Association (AnaBoRaRe) even has an index for maintaining quality control.

Centuries of trial and error on the northern Italian terroir show that the Vacche Rosse’s milk is best when fed a base of cereals, grass, hay, legumes, and lucerne with no genetically modified feed, and it is best from cows grazing in mountain pastures.

And the Vacche Rosse—like all parmigiano—is still made as the monks made it centuries ago. The milk obtained from the evening milking is partially skimmed through the cream rising to the surface, and then added to the morning milk in copper boilers. Then the curd is broken into corn-size lumps and gradually heated to 56 degrees Celsius, to remove excess water.

The lumps mass on the bottom and are lifted out with a wooden shovel, gathered in a linen cloth, cut into two parts, and cut into molds. The molds are turned several times, and when dry are pickled for 20 to 24 days in brine to absorb the salt.

The molds are then matured in a cool aging room on wooden boards where they are turned and brushed. Parmigiano is generally matured for 18 months, but it is not unusual for it to sit for 24 months before sale. Parmigiano Reggiano Vacche Rosse must be matured for longer than standard parmigiano, a minimum of 24 months, and often 30 to 36 months.

After 12 months of aging, the Consorzio Oarmigian Reggiano inspects every cheese wheel, by tapping the wheel at various points. By tapping the wheel, the Consorzio detects cracks and holes—and those defective cheeses are marked as inferior quality.

This cheese is only produced in five provinces in Northern Italy: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, and Mantua, collectively named Emilia-Romagna. The region encompassed by these five provinces is designated as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which has thus guaranteed its authenticity and consistency, since 1996.

Vacche Rosse has created quite a sensation with cheese connoisseurs. It has been voted as the winner of the First Absolute Grand Prix in the hard cheese category, and of all world cheeses. At first blush, Vacche Rosse tastes like standard Parmigiano Reggiano, but as its complex taste explodes across your palate, it becomes noticeably different. It leaves a more concentrated flavor than normal Parmigiano Reggiano, and a rich aftertaste.

Given its price, using Vacche Rosse for cooking might be regarded by cheese aficionados as wasteful, so try it as an eating cheese first.
In fact, despite the U.S.A.’s preference for using Parmigiano Reggiano almost entirely as a cooking and topping cheese, all Parmigianos are regarded as eating cheese in their homeland, and indeed, around Europe.

For maximum impact and to appreciate Vacche Rosse fully, treat Vacche Rossa like a vintage red wine and let it sit for an hour before serving it in thin slices. In fact, bold flakes of Parmigiano Reggiano drizzled with a few drops of Balsamic Vinegar from Medina or Reggia Emilia make a tasty interlude when you’re wine tasting.

This cheese can be eaten in small chunks, or accompanied with savory breads. Slivers of the cheese are delicious with fruits and vegetables—especially celery and cherry tomatos. Or, try it with slices of apples and pears, dried plums, figs, and walnuts and hazelnuts. A generous dollop of your favorite chutney on a slice of parmigiano is a tasty palate cleanser. And it mixes well with fresh vegetable salads, and a barman’s dash of extra-virgin olive oil. It tastes good on a mushroom salad or on top of sliced carpacio

It is used in most Italian and Mediterranean recipes and complements meat and fish nicely, and is a superb topping on soups and pies—especially pies with lots of vegetables. In the old country, the large hollowed-out crusts of Parmigiano Reggiano are used as a unique serving pot for soups and fondues for groups of diners. And it is an integral part of any pasta dish.

In the beverage area, it pairs especially well with high tannic Italian wines such as Chianti, Sangiovese, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino and Barbaresco. This is a special cheese and it deserves a great wine, so don't skimp on the bottle.


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