The serious business of Parmigiano cheese

The serious business of Parmigiano cheese

History of Italian Hard Grating Cheeses


Since the ancient Romans, Italians have named their foods and wines for their places of origin. Parmigiano means simply “of or from Parma” and, likewise, Reggiano means “of or from Reggio.” Initially these were two similar hard Italian cheeses with an internal structure that was granular in appearance and texture, but made in two adjacent Italian provinces. Both were made from the milk of the same breeds of cows, both had their curds cut to the size of a kernel of wheat (grano is the Italian word for wheat) and both preserved the goodness of milk for long periods of time.


The history of these cheeses can be traced back eight centuries when monks living in the Enza River Valley, which separated the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia, succeeded, with the help of irrigation systems, in pioneering the farming of dairy herds and the production of cheese on a marketable scale.This remarkable advance made it possible to better feed the population by preserving fresh milk in the form of large wheels of hard cheese, which could be aged for consumption over an extended period of time. Parmigiano cheese and Reggiano cheese, once aged until firm, could also be transported readily during this pre-refrigeration era.

Parmigiano and Reggiano Join Forces

Depending on where they lived, cheese makers in the area between Parma and Reggio called their cheese Parmigiano or Reggiano. Eventually, the two terms were combined to form the name familiar to us now: Parmigiano Reggiano® cheese.

Though they were known by different names, these hard cheeses, Parmigiano and Reggiano, were heirs of the same soil, the same grasses, the same lines of cows, the same milk, and the same cheese-making traditions. In other words, they shared the same terroir, a word that alludes to the special characteristics a food derives from the geography, geology and climate of a place.

In 1934 cheese makers in Parma, Reggio and adjoining provinces with the same terroir joined forces to standardize the production of their cheeses. They made history in so doing, forming the oldest European organization, Consorzio del Grana Tipico, for the protection and promotion of cheese produced in a defined geographical region. (Note: The term “Grana” first came into use to indicate cheeses with a grainy structure, produced in the Po Valley from the eleventh century onwards.)

In 1954 the producers renamed their consortium to reflect the historic origins of their cheese: Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano. Today the full name of this cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, is proudly displayed in pin dots on the rind of each wheel.

Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese, a World-Class Hard Grating Cheese

Parmigiano Reggiano is made with partially skimmed raw milk from cows fed only on the local grasses and hay of the place of origin. The milk is gently heated and, following the addition of rennet, coagulates to form curds, which are molded into large wheels and brined.

Other hard grating cheeses contain additives or are pressed, but these characteristics do not apply to Parmigiano Reggiano. Because the quality of the milk is high, Parmigiano Reggiano is suitable for lengthy aging, typically 18 to 36 months—longer than for most other types of hard grating cheese.



Grana Padano is produced in a large area of the Po Valley in 26 provinces to the north of the small five-province production zone reserved for Parmigiano Reggiano. Grana Padano is certified at 9 months and typically aged a total of 10 to 18 months.

Other hard grating cheeses made in or near the Po Valley have been associated historically with the towns of Bagozzo, Lodi and Piacenza.


A statement attributed to the gastronome Massimo Alberini sums up the historical importance of Italy’s hard grating cheese: “It is, without doubt, the most typical Italian cheese, not only for its intrinsic value but, more important, for the contribution which it makes to the flavor and nutritive value of many dishes, from minestrone to pasta, from polenta to certain vegetables. [It] enriches without suffocating, gives vigor without overwhelming and, in particular, confers an Italian character to [each such dish].”

Parmesan Cheese Origin

There are many misconceptions about the word Parmesan, but there is no doubt whatsoever about Parmesan cheese’s origin! Parmesan refers to the famous cheese made in and around the Italian province of Parma for the past eight centuries and more. Historically speaking, it is an earlier term for what we now call Parmigiano Reggiano® cheese.

The history of Parmesan cheese and its etymology are fascinating, so let’s go back a few centuries and trace them.


The 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.

It was monks in the area around Parma who first started making a distinctive hard cheese during the Middle Ages. By the time of the Renaissance, people in the nobility were producing this fine cheese for their own tables. It was known as caseum paramensis in Latin, and locals shortened this to Pramsàn, in dialect.

Cutting a Parmesan cheese in half

Cutting a Parmesan cheese in half

Parmesan Makes a Name for Itself

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.

History immortalized the use of Parmesan cheese as a condiment for pasta in Boccaccio’s Decameron tale about an imaginary gourmet paradise called Bengodi. At the summit of a delightful mountain of Parmesan, cooks rolled macaroni downhill to acquire a coating of the snowy cheese.

Parmesan: the French Connection

By the 1530s, Italian nobles began to refer to the cheese as Parmesano, meaning “of or from Parma.”

Given the close ties between the Italian and French nobility, it’s no surprise that the name was shortened to Parmesan in the French courts of the day. The latter acquired a taste for the cheese they often received as a gift from Parma visitors. Another name indicating the Gallic appreciation for this cheese was fromage de Parme.

The Name Parmesan Stuck!

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, the name Parmesan became more common due to the continuing close relations between the Dukes of Parma and the French nobility.

Seeking to prolong his life, the playwright Molière decided to live on a diet consisting of 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.

According to historical records mentioning the cheese, the name Parmesan eventually spread beyond France to take root in other countries.

Italian Terms for Parmesan

If the French word Parmesan means “of or from Parma,” what does Parmigiano mean? The same thing, in Italian. Producers who lived closer to Reggio than to Parma might refer to their cheese as Reggiano. These Italian terms indicating geographical origin became common only in the 19th and 20th centuries with the political and linguistic unification of Italy.

In 1934, producers in Parma and Reggio-Emilia joined forces with producers in the provinces of Modena and Mantua (the portion to the east of the Po River) to form an association called the Consorzio del Grana Tipico. Recognizing that they shared the same cheese-making terroir, these cheese makers banded together to standardize the production of their cheeses. Producers from the province of Bologna (to the west of the Reno River) later joined the group.


In 1954, the pioneering alliance of cheese makers renamed their group the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano. In choosing this name, members acknowledged the historic role played by Parma and Reggio producers in defining the character of the cheese and the methods for making it properly.

From that point on, the official name of the cheese has been Parmigiano Reggiano, as indicated by the pin dots imprinted on the rind of each wheel. Members of the Consorzio not only follow strict production standards, but they work together to market Parmigiano Reggiano and protect the name from imitators.

Parmigiano Reggiano, the Only Parmesan

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 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.

While these laws are enforced in Europe, elsewhere in the world there are many would- be imitators. To avoid misunderstandings, the consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano producers encourages retailers and consumers in the U.S. and other countries to understand the history of Parmesan and to use the cheese’s correct name: Parmigiano Reggiano.

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