Tradition. Respect. Quality.
In September of this year I had the wonderful opportunity to visit and tour the Red Cow Consortium (aka Consorzio Vacche Rosse) in Reggio-Emilia, Italy. I had heard talk at a SlowFood event about this cheese and its history. It just so happened that there was a Free Open Day at the ‘cascina’, the Italian word for farmhouse, that allowed me to visit, learn about this wonderful place and then taste cheese varying from 24, 30, 40, to 60 months of aging! So here we go… off to visit those beautiful Red Cows.
The Red Cow Breed
So Red Cows are exactly what they sounds like: they are red! This breed of cows were brought over by the Barbaric peoples, and they have been used for making Parmigiano-Reggiano for over 8 centuries. The population of red cows almost faced extinction in the 1980’s, arriving at a population of only 450 cows. This was due to increased use other breeds of cows such as the Holstein for cheese production.(
However, the value of this niche was noted and now the numbers of red cows has grown and its biodiversity has been restored. Why are these cows so special? Well…These cows produce milk that is particularly suited for making Parmigiano-Reggiano because there is a high quantity of casein in it. These cows are also raised with respect and without forceful production methods. They eat non GMO grasses and cereals. From my brief time spent here, it appears that the cows at the Red Cow Consortium are truly happy cows, and the people that work with them truly value and appreciate the animals.
(In terms of sustainability, dairy is often looked at as the enemy. Why? It’s an animal product first off all and it has a high overall carbon footprint. Despite all the truth in this, and the fact that we should all limit our dairy consumption… when we do eat dairy we should seek out a genuine and local product like this one.)
Production: The art in creating Parmigiano-Reggiano
So the production process is very complex and every tiny detail is crucial. Temperatures, fermentation, filtering, salting, aging. It’s definitely a job for an experienced cheesemaker. During the tour, the cheesemakers explained the process in a simplified, less scientific jargon-filled way.
First, the milk is delivered to the cheese factory or is brought directly from the morning milk and from there the process begins. The milk is put into giant copper cauldrons that will produce two twin cheese wheels. This milk is heated, correct quantities of bacteria are added to eliminate microbes, and rennet is added. From here the milk mix starts to coagulate in the cauldron. After about 10 minutes the mix begins to curd. Using specific tools, the cheesemaker separates the curd from the whey. After this separation which includes lots of stirring, the curds sink to the bottom and spontaneously adhere to each other. Next using hemp cloth, the wheel of cheese is lifted up out of the liquid and then cut in half; giving birth to the two twin forms. These two forms weigh around 90 kilograms!
After this the forms are put into moulds and then are labeled with the Parmigiano-Reggiano brand and are transferred to other moulds. After 4 days, they head to the salt bath for another 19-22 days. This adds flavor to the cheese and acts as it’s only preservative.
Now the aging process can begin. These cheeses are aged for a minimum of 2 years on large wooden shelves. Here they will be examined and checked for quality before being officially ready. The cheesemakers tap all around on the cheese form with a hammer-like tool. Based on the sound they hear, they know if the cheese is on the right track.
Each cheese has a different flavor based on it’s aging. The 24 month Parmigiano is sweet, rich and SO easy to eat. As you taste from the least aged to the 60 month cheese you taste a huge difference. The cheeses that have aged longer send a wow-factor to your tastebuds. The taste is still sweet but just that much more bold.
Overall, all the products from Red Cow Consortium were delicious. Aside from Parmigiano, they also produce: butter, yogurt, cream, milk, panna cotta, ricotta and many other cheeses. They sell the Parmigiano in half kilogram pieces in order to show off the label which represents Parmigiano-Reggiano’s officially stamp but also that of the Vacche Rosse ( Red Cows).
The visit to Consorzio Vacche Rosse was like taking a step back in time. Where speed and mass production aren’t the goals. Instead every inch of this place is oozing with respect for tradition, biodiversity and most importantly impeccable quality. From the cows to the cheesemakers to the final product. Their motto is “Innamorarsi della rossa” which means “fall in love with red”.
And I did just that.
Author: Ali @ Sustainable Psyche
My name is Ali. I am an American living in Italy. I am passionate about delicious food that is also ethical, healthy and sustainable. I love pasta and pizza, traveling, horseback riding and exploring the vibrant city of Milan that I call home.
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