The cheesemaker’s profession, the guardian of traditional Parmigiano Reggiano
PDO Parmigiano Reggiano is a unique, unmistakable cheese, which is made today with the same ingredients as a thousand years ago, i.e. milk, salt and rennet, and using the same artisan method, involving repeated steps, long timeframes and know-how passed down from generation to generation.
Cheesemakers, with their skilful hands and expert eye, are the guardians and interpreters of the traditional techniques used to turn the best milk into excellent Parmigiano Reggiano.
This work requires passion and dedication, combining tradition with the calling of the region of Emilia, which has always been synonymous with good food. This profession is learnt in the field, day by day and cheese by cheese, thanks to the knowledge shared by working alongside an expert master cheesemaker, who passes down the secrets of this art to younger cheesemakers and apprentices.
As the one who makes the technical decisions, the cheesemaker is the reference point for the entire team working at the cheese factory. When the milk arrives, the cheesemaker knows how to grasp its specific properties: thanks to the sensitivity of their nose, sight and touch, they can recognise the characteristics of the milk and decide how to handle it every day to optimise the processing. The process is not always the same, because while on the one hand, production follows the strict Specifications of the Protection Consortium, on the other hand, the raw material, i.e. the milk, varies every morning based on the season, the humidity and the animals’ diet. The milk is processed with minor adjustments, from the cooking temperature to the timings, which allow the cheesemaker to create the perfect Parmigiano Reggiano cheese: this is the value of the craftsmanship of this profession.
Depending on the climate and the type of milk, the cheesemaker establishes the quantity of whole milk from the morning to put into the boiler together with the skimmed milk from the evening. The cheesemaker checks the density of the curd and assesses the right consistency by touch so it can be broken down with a curd cutter into lots of small granules: this is a key moment in processing Parmigiano Reggiano and the future quality of the product depends on it, which will be discovered 12 months after these steps are completed.
The cheesemaker is always the one who chooses the type (liquid or powdered) and quantity of rennet and whey starter to be used, based on the type of milk. Furthermore, the cheesemaker also adjusts the cooking temperature, with small variations that nevertheless have a huge impact on the end result.
While the role of the cheesemaker is essential, the synergy among the entire team working at the cheese factory is just as important: the ability to work as a team, following the right times, the precision and the manual skill of every single employee are behind production efficiency and the quality of the end product. Only careful understanding of the milk, the quality in performing the techniques passed down for generations and a passion for the job can create an outstanding Parmigiano Reggiano, like the one we produce at our two cheese factories, Colline del Cigarello e Canossa and Colline di Selvapiana e Canossa.
We asked our two cheesemakers, Davis Bassi (Colline del Cigarello e Canossa Cheese Factory), and Pasquale Aversa (Colline di Selvapiana e Canossa Cheese Factory), to tell us their story and the most important aspects of this job, which holds the charm of an ancient profession.
How did you become a cheesemaker?
Davis: “There was a cheese factory near to the house where I grew up, so I was fascinated about it ever since I was a child. As soon as I could, I used to go to the cheese factory and walk around the boilers. It was somewhere I really enjoyed… that started my passion for this world. Every afternoon, after school, I used to pass by the cheese factory to look around and then one day the cheesemaker asked me if I wanted to start working there as an apprentice: it was a great offer for me and I accepted it right away. So I started working at the small Castagneto cheese factory, where I stayed for about 10 years until I moved to the Garfagnolo cheese factory (in Castelnovo Monti), where I met a great master cheesemaker, Ennio Passerini, who passed down all his knowledge to me and later left me the reins to his cheese factory. My teachers were the best cheesemakers, I did not go to “cheesemaker school”: day by day, they taught me all the methods and techniques for making Parmigiano Reggiano”.
Pasquale: “I moved to Parma when I was 21 from the province of Avellino and worked at a company in the dairy sector, in the industrial whey processing department. I became a cheesemaker almost by chance, after seizing an unexpected opportunity: they asked if I wanted to help out the elderly cheesemaker in charge of production of Parmigiano Reggiano at the same company’s cheese factory. I started out as an apprentice. I liked it right away and became intrigued and passionate about processing cheese. I became an assistant cheesemaker and then a cheesemaker. I worked there until 2020 when I decided to seize another fantastic opportunity and started working at the Selvapiana cheese factory”.
What do you like most about your work?
Davis: “The best thing about this job is turning the milk into cheese. The satisfaction of seeing the milk poured into the boilers, which is the starting point, and then admiring the whole cheese and the people who eat and appreciate it. The satisfaction of having created a unique cheese and being able to say “I did that with my own hands”.
Pasquale: “The best part of my job is the day of expert quality control, when 12 months after processing, the whole cheeses become Parmigiano Reggiano. It is like an exam: a day full of adrenaline when you are on bated breath for the results of your work. If you have done a good job, it will be a very satisfying day, while if the result is not great, you get back to work right away and find out how you can improve the result”.
What is the most difficult challenge about your work?
Davis: “The most difficult challenge, but also the most satisfying one, is being able to understand and know the milk that arrives at the cheese factory every morning. “The milk is always white, but it is never the same. It is so alive that it is never the same. You need to understand it to be able to create cheese every day. Our skill is being able to understand the milk”. Every morning, this “challenge” is repeated. You need to understand the quality of the milk that arrives to process it in the best way.
Pasquale: “The most difficult challenge about my work is understanding and following the changes of the raw material, i.e. the milk, and being able to instantly take all the steps required to make a high-quality cheese. The milk is not always the same. You need to be able to understand and work it in the best way”.
Other than Parmigiano Reggiano, what are you passionate about?
Davis: “I would call myself an “athletic cheesemaker”: I like playing sport, especially outdoors, both around our Apennines and elsewhere, going for a bike ride and swimming. Moving about and keeping busy gives me a boost and the energy to do a good job. I also love riding my motorbike.
Pasquale: “I love cooking, it is a passion that my mother passed down to me, especially typical dishes from my homeland, Campania, like pizza and bread. But I am not very good at cooking desserts. I really love nature and dogs, especially my two French bulldogs”.