Q&A: Cathy Strange on Parmigiano Reggiano

We visit Italy each year to hand-pick wheels for our stores — hear about the journey from our award-winning cheese expert, Cathy Strange.

parmesiano reggiano

In the spring of 2018, Whole Foods Market Senior Writer and Editor (and resident food nerd) Jennifer Cheng went to Italy with our award-winning cheese expert, Cathy Strange. Join them as they reminisce and wax poetic about Parmigiano Reggiano — and as they get excited for one of the biggest cheese events of the year.

Jennifer Cheng: Going to northern Italy with you was a once-in-a-lifetime, pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming cheese experience. I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to taste and learn about more than a hundred cheeses in the span of a week ever again.

One of the highlights of the trip was witnessing what you called “the birth of twins,” or the twin wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano being born from their copper vats. What’s your favorite part of watching the cheese get made?

Cathy Strange: Cheese is alive, so daily environmental changes like weather and humidity impact the cheese. Every day, a cheese is newly redefined. For Parmigiano Reggiano, the metaphor couldn’t be more exact than “identical twins.” The milk in the vat, the process and the cheesemaker for those two wheels are exactly the same. The moment when the cheesemakers pull the cheese out of the vat and cut it into two separate pieces of cheese … it’s just a magical part of the cheesemaking process, and it inspires me every time I see it.

JC: On this trip we got to meet with the president of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano (the ruling body that governs all things Parmigiano Reggiano). It was an honor to shake hands with the man some might call “The President of The King of Cheeses.” I think people might find it interesting that wheels are not allowed to be sold as Parmigiano Reggiano without specific rind markings that signify approval from the Consorzio. I’ve heard you talk about how important it is to you that we show the rind on every cut piece of Parmigiano Reggiano we sell in our stores. Can you talk about that a little more?

CS: This is The King of Cheese; It’s the most respected cheese, and it’s a PDO (protected denomination of origin). Cheesemakers actually get forms, or molds, that press the pin dot indicators of Parmigiano Reggiano on the cheese. The animals that produce the milk have to be from a certain place, the feed they eat has to come from a certain place and the milk has to meet certain criteria. It has to be made in a copper vat. If the regulations for producing the cheese aren’t met, you’re not allowed to use the pin dots or the Parmigiano Reggiano seal.

It’s important that when we hand-crack the wheels in our stores (and that’s what we do in every one of our stores), you have that ability to see that proof on every piece of cheese. There’s no substitute. It is the original. And we sell export-level Parmigiano Reggiano, so it’s really in the top one percent of all Parmigiano Reggiano made. There's respect for the craft and the history — you don’t want all of that effort to be substituted or misrepresented. So that’s the diligence we have around hand-cracking and having a piece of that rind on every piece of Parmigiano Reggiano that you buy in our stores.

JC: Being able to witness the cheesemaker cracking one of his wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano was an honor. I’ll always remember the look on his face. He was beaming with so much pride as he cut and handed out pieces for us to taste. Why is it so important to you that our customers get to witness the cracking of a Parmigiano Reggiano wheel? What do you want them to take away from it?

CS: This is the chance to taste the freshest piece of cheese that’s a true representation of what this protected denomination of origin cheese is. The cheese hasn’t been sitting in vacuum packaging for a year. It wasn’t cracked by a machine. Our team members are trained to use tools that have been used for hundreds of years to crack along curd lines to get the best aromatics and flavors. You can’t even always get that experience in Italy.

The cracking is the final destination. It’s a culmination of years of diligent farmers’ work, milk from the cows they raise, cheesemakers’ expertise and our Italian affinage partners that age wheels to perfection. Each wheel is a representation of all of those people along the way that touched that product to bring you the world-class cheese that it is.

Looking for more information? See our Guide to Parmigiano Reggiano to keep reading about the king of cheese.

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