Silently maturing cheese wheels reward patience

With one family name and two Christian names the history of the Cravero family of Bra, Piedmont is told in cheese – towers of golden, ripening rounds of  Parmigiano-Reggiano. Through five generations of affineurs (alternately named Giacomo and Giorgio) the current head of this Italian family business Giorgio Cravero is an engaging enthusiast for the King of Cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Parmigiano-Reggiano, for me, is the complete cheese, the king cheese. In fact, when eating it as a table cheese, its fragrance and aroma equally satisfy delicate and strong eaters. And it always satisfies both the expert and the poet of the table Luigi Carnacina (1888-1981), world-renowned maestro of the grand cuisine

A mutual friend introduced us and one chilly evening in January we made our way, to the edge of town and a building that offered no any clue about what lay behind its imposing walls. A couple of bells were rung and a hidden gate later found us in a huge space full of golden-coloured cheese wheels generously reflecting the light and giving a warm, welcoming glow to the rooms.

I always have Parmigiano-Reggiano, olive oil and pasta at home. When people get sick, they want chicken soup; I want spaghetti with parmesan cheese, olive oil and a bit of lemon zest. It makes me feel better every time.
Isabella Rossellini
, actress

Cravero’s cheeses are sourced from around Pavullo in Emilia-Romagna, Italy in the Modenese Apeninne mountains. Indeed, to have a ‘real’ Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese the milk supply and dairy must be based in either the Bologna, Mantua, Modena or Parma region to get the official marques stenciled on its side. The taste and structure of the raw milk that matures into Cravero cheeses is created by cows eating fresh, high altitude, nutrient filled grasses. The Craveros have been in the cheese business since 1855 and have a regular spot at the biannual Cheese event in Bra, a frenetic food event which attract raw milk cheese producers from around the world.

Tucked away on the edge of the little city of Bra, spiritual home to the global food activism Slow Food organisation and behind a high, non-descript wall, is a warehouse filled with hundreds of slowly maturing wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano. In the cave, properly known as the maturation room cheese rounds are stacked 15 high, equally spaced on industrial-design chic pine wood boards held in place by steel scaffolding poles. The cheeses wait for another 12 months before being shipped to eager cheese lovers in over 20 countries including the US, the UK, France and Spain.

Using unpasteurized cows milk, Parmigiano-Reggiano is made every day of the year and not interrupted by weddings, christenings or funerals. Giorgio takes delivery of wheels every two or three months, filling spaces left by the cheese packed up for customers after their year long maturation period. “We rarely sell our cheeses at 36 months, preferring to offer our cheeses with a creamier, sweeter taste.  At 36 months, the cheese is harder, dryer and saltier. At 22 or 24 months the cheese is good for eating in chunks at the table or used for cooking”. The average weight of a round is 36.2k (80llbs). As the cheeses are rested, the skin dries forming a natural, edible crust with no intervention.

Parmigiano Cheese: in our time, in Italy, supremacy is given to the quality of Parmigiano cheese, whereas in the past the abundance of wool was boasted. Hence the couplet: …they are the noble fruit of milk from Parma Francesco Maria Grapaldo (1460-1515), comments on passages by Vitruvio and other Latin authors

Giorgio is a skilled affineur, an expert in creating storage conditions for aging cheeses over several months or even years. Affineurs need a good eye for selecting which cheese to buy in the first instance, although the Cravero wheels are selected by locally based experts fully aware of the quality of young cheese that would find a home in the Bra warehouse.

This maturing stage is vital in the life of a cheese and is the sole focus of the Cravero family business. “We buy our cheeses from just two areas in the mountains south of Modena. We have never made our own. We are affineurs working to create the best Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is where our passion and expertise lies,” Giorgio tells me, waving his arm at the rounds, waiting patiently around him. Wheels are often aged for 12 months at the dairy before the affineurs select their wheels and truck them to their own warehouses. Long-aged cheeses such as Comté and Gouda are similarly prepared for the market.

Parmigianino-Reggiano cheese production is a highly regulated operation in Italy, but competes with fake and imitation cheeses made around the world, particularly in the US where food identity rules are looser than in the Europe Union through its Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) laws.

“We select our cheeses because of the terroir of the producer,” says Giorgio. “The size of dairy, the approach and artisanal skill of the farmer and cheese maker and of course the cows and the grass they feed on.”

Our cheeses are selected by people Giorgio has worked with for years. “They have a deep understanding and respect for the quality and type we want, and our customers expect from us,” he says.

“Their expert eyes look at each cheese, seeing holes, imperfections, cracks that may lead to trouble and a poorer quality end-product. Using a small metal hammer, they getting knock the sides, tops and bottoms, their finely tuned ears listening out for echoes that might suggest a poorly made cheese full of holes that might

The role of the affineur is both and art and a science with skills built up over years of gaining knowledge of flavour profiles; caring for the cheeses to ripen gently in the best environment, not too cold, hot, damp or dry conditions.

Cravero’s wheels rest on pine and they turn their wheels more frequently than other agers with an aim to make a softer, less cakey texture. In the Cravero warehouse, temperatures and humidity are kept at around 8.6˚ C and 60%, during the cooler winter months, allowing the cheese to rest, while in the hotter months (especially June, July and August) air conditioning is used to maintain temperature of between 17 – 18˚ C.  Keeping the cheeses in a modern warehouse allows better environmental control than traditionally achieved in underground caves.

Every two weeks the cheeses are flipped upside down which helps maintain the creamy texture.

To buy the Cravero’s cheeses pop into Neal’s Yard Diary outlets in London, or if you’re in Alba in Piedmont, Italy head to the cheese shop Dispensa del Convento.

Cravero’s Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is delicately flavoured, with its classic fruity, nut taste and has a smooth texture eaten in little chunks. It leaves a moorish after taste on the tongue and is very addictive with its underlying umami character.

Giorgio recommends pairing his Parmigiano-Reggiano with sparkling wines, name checking Italian favourites such as Franciacorta from Lombardy, Prosecco from further east in the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia region or a sparkling white wine from Piedmont’s Alta Langhe region.

However, he whispered to me: “I like it best with Champagne”.

Bruce

I am a freelance journalist and published author focusing on food and drink; business startups and enterprise, culture and travel. In 2019 I graduated with a Masters degree in Food Culture, Communication and Marketing from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur.

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