Great foods reflect their place of origin, and this is certainly true of Parmesan cheese. The zone for Parmigiano Reggiano® cheese production is located north of Tuscany in the regions of Emilia Romagna.
Parmesan cheese was originally made, more than eight centuries ago, in the land between the neighboring towns of Parma and Reggio Emilia. Eventually, the provinces of Modena and parts of Bologna and Mantua, where cheese of the same kind was made, were included in the legally approved zone. But it remains quite small, and deliberately so, because Parmigiano Reggiano is intrinsically a local cheese.
When it comes to a local cheese of this caliber, the concept of terroir takes on enormous meaning. The land, geography and geology all impart special qualities to Parmigiano Reggiano.
The dairy cows consist of breeds that thrive here—Brown Swiss and Friesian, with small boutique productions using historic breeds like the Red Reggian and the White Modenese. Their milk—and the local cheese into which it is made—derive special qualities from the high-quality diet and other conditions. The cows feed mainly on local grasses in the warm months and local hay in cold weather, along with a small supplement of vegetable feed. No silage (fermented feed) is allowed.
According to regulations of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, the rich milk must be transported from cows to the cheese-making facility within a narrow two-hour time frame. Such a strict requirement is possible only when a cheese is truly local, made on a small scale within a limited geographic area.
Local cheese-making industries are vital to the economy of this region. Parmigiano Reggiano producers, all 382 of them (based on 2011 data) are following traditions that can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
As for consumers, whether in Italy or America, they can take pride in supporting ancient traditions by buying and eating Parmigiano Reggiano, one of the greatest of local cheeses.