So what makes Parmigiano Reggiano so special? Legendary Italian chef Gennaro Contaldo knows. Last month we co-hosted a brilliant event with the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium at Westminster Kingsway College in front of a packed audience of WKC students and up-and-coming chefs in our own Countertalk community. Gennaro hosted, giving us incredible insight into the history, creation and uses of this extraordinary cheese (and loads of parmesan to nibble, too). So what did we learn?
Read on to understand more about the ONLY parmesan, and to elevate your game.


Parmigiano Reggiano is often confused with similar hard cheeses which can be made anywhere (from Australia to Argentina) – but the Consortium (and Italians!) will tell you that Parmigiano Reggiano PDO is “the only parmesan”.

That’s because the real thing is heavily regulated so that it adheres to a set of centuries-old rules, ensuring that the end result is the absolute pinnacle of quality. That quality makes it highly sought-after and means that the consumer knows that the taste and health benefits are top notch, largely due to the fact that the use of additives or preservatives is absolutely forbidden.


So what are those regulations? The PDO label means that it has a ‘protected designation of origin’, meaning only cheese produced in a specific region of Italy using a strictly defined method can bear the name. This rigorous process ensures consistent quality and those unique characteristics of flavour, depth and texture. You might have noticed the words Parmigiano Reggiano on the rind of those big wheels of cheese – that’s your assurance that the cheese was produced in Italy in one of the following areas: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua to the right of the Po river, and Bologna to the left of the Reno River, and that it’s been made using only raw, unpasteurized milk from cows fed on local foraged grass and hay.


The story of Parmigiano Reggiano begins in the 12th century, nestled within monasteries in northern Italy. Monks, seeking to preserve surplus milk, developed a slow, meticulous process to create a cheese with a long shelf life. That cheese became famous throughout Italy and Europe, and the method and ingredients used by the monks – just partially skimmed milk, salt and rennet – have remained consistent to this day. The only difference now is that, as local and international demand increased over the last few centuries, the wheels of cheese and the quantities produced became larger. But the PDO label and the strict regulations mean that quality and consistency remain the same.


Parmigiano Reggiano PDO must be aged for at least 12 months (“regular” hard cheese is often only 10 months or younger, compromising quality and flavour). The ages you are most likely to come across are as follows:

12-19 months (delicate): Parmigiano Reggiano matured for 12-19 months has a delicate flavour with aromas of milk, yoghurt and butter. That milky base is characterised by vegetable notes such as grass, boiled vegetables and sometimes fruit and flowers. The cheese is simultaneously sweet and sour, with a grainy, crumbly, and melt-in-the-mouth texture. It is particularly well-suited to aperitifs, paired with sparkling white wines, or to enrich salads and cold dishes.

20-26 months (balanced): Parmigiano Reggiano aged for 20-26 months is characterised by a balanced richness of aromas and flavours. In addition to the fresh flavours of milk, notes of melted butter and cheese rind come through. Fresh fruit, such as banana, pineapple and citrus, appear along with hints of nuts and spices; a rich umami depth akin to beef stock is also perceptible. The flavour teeters between sweet and savoury, and the mulitple tyrosine crystals provide a distinct crunch. Perfect with medium-bodied wines and to add flavour to any Italian dish.

27-34 months (aromatic): The cheese is well-matured and aromatic, with a more pronounced yet still balanced flavour. The cheese is more dry and crumbles easily, dissolving so as to give the cheese a sandy texture. The taste is stronger and more piquant, with a discernible nuttiness. It is particularly well-suited for stuffed and baked pastas, or to be enjoyed at the end of meals paired with fruit and honey.

35-45 months (intense): The colour of a 35-45 month aged Parmigiano Reggiano is an intense straw yellow, the amino acid crystals are clearly visible, and the olfactory notes are of warm spices and hay. The prevailing aroma is that of chestnut and meat stock, slightly spicy and astringent, and it is especially well paired with structured or full-bodied red wines.

More than 45 months: The colour of the cheese is an amber yellow, with an intense toasted flavour and smoky smell, similar to leather or dried mushrooms. The cheese has a very special structure indeed: dry, very crumbly, and breaking apart when touched. It is considered a luxurious gift, and is a wonderful companion to structured wines.


No! Gennaro was very clear that, when it comes to cooking with Parmigiano Reggiano, you need to throw out the rule book – or at least, only use that received wisdom as a starting point for your own experimentations and preferences. Never use parmesan on fish? Not true says Gennaro, who points out that it can be an amazing pairing, especially as it goes so well with lemon. And lemon isn’t the only fruit it goes with – it’s incredible with pears, and even strawberries.

And a final brilliant tip: that Parmigiano Reggiano is an investment, so you want to make use of every single bit, even the rind. You might have heard that you can keep the leftover rinds and use them to enrich stocks, soups and more (always wash the rind first, before cooking). Gennaro told us how to really release the flavour… he suggested flashing them for just 30 seconds through a really hot oven before throwing them into the pot – and it’s a total game-changer. 

Parmigiano Reggiano on everything and in everything, from now on. Thank you Gennaro!

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or of the granting authority. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.a

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