It was cloudy, but it wasn’t raining when we awoke the day we were leaving Modena. We didn’t get to leave the hotel until almost 9AM, but our car was packed and we were on our way to our ancestral homeland of L’Isola d’Elba. The drive was going to be a long one. Initially, my plan was to leave early to get to Elba early, but with a discouraging weather forecast, I decided that we didn’t need to hurry there. My friend Enrico was kind enough to set us up with a visit to the small production Casefeicio where La Francescana gets its Parmigiano from. Located about an hour and a half south of Modena in the mountains near the Tuscan border, just outside of the mountain town of Zocco, was The Caseificio of Rosola, a cooperative of the local dairy farms. One of the things that makes this particular caseificio special is that they make cheeses with milk from the Vacca Bianca di Modena. They also make cheeses from more typical cows, but the white cow is what they butter their bread with, so to speak.
Most of the drive to Rosola was through a light rain and through fairly populous, industrial areas. Once we got into the hills though, the population started to dwindle and the views became more and more extraordinary as we wound our way up. The Garmin GPS would not recognize the address that we were given, but it did recognize the town. Once we got there, I was able to find the place via the Maps app on my iPhone and we managed to get to the caseificio with a combined effort from the Garmin and the iPhone.
The caseificio di Rosola is small. When I visited a caseificio di Parmeggiano with my son, Andrew, just outside of Modena in 2003, it was a big one, much bigger than this. We were welcomed by Daniela, who had us put on a plastic coat and a hairnet in order to enter the cheese making facility.
She proceeded to explain the process of making Parmiggiano to us. This starts with the evening’s milk collection, which is poured into a long, sloped, and relatively shallow stainless steel collection vat, from which most of the cream gets skimmed off. The cream goes to make butter, ricotta and panna cotta, all of which are sold by the consortium.The remaining, skimmed milk is then drained into cheesecloth lined, deep conical vats after it had been mixed with the following morning’s milk. Milk from the white cows is kept separate from the rest. There is only enough milk from these cows to make one cheese per day. The remaining process is similar to the regular Parmigiano with the exception of the duration of subsequent aging. Once the milk is collected in the conical vats, it is treated with veal rennet, which works quickly to congeal the milk proteins into a large curd ball. This curd then gets cut into very small pieces and eventually gets pulled up out of the remaining whey supported by the cheesecloth. It was at this point of the process that we had arrived. Daniela introduced us to the master cheese maker, Roberto Caselli and his assistant, Diego. Roberto and Diego, with the help of a winch, lifted the curds out of the water and into molds. They tied up the cheese cloth… …and placed weights on top to compress the curds in order to squeeze out any remaining whey. At this point, Diego took over the tour, leading us down into the cellar. In the morning, the previous days’ cheeses are brought into a room where they are removed from the molds, stamped with the date of initial production and for the white cow cheese, a special stamp designating it as such. In addition, the special rind-ring with the Parmigiano-Reggiano indicators is placed around the waist of the cheese. The cheeses are left there for a bit, before being placed in a saline bath for a week. Once they have spent sufficient time in the bath, they are removed and placed in a special warm (but not hot) and humid room, where any remaining fat gets “sweated” out. From the “steam bath” the cheeses are moved into the aging racks, where they get periodically turned. The cheeses are aged there for anywhere from 18 to 37 months with the white cow cheeses getting the longest aging.
I could have lingered in the aging room for some time, but our hosts had other ideas.At the end of our tour, Daniela had some of the 37 month aged white cow cheese ready for us to sample along with some fresh made ricotta and panna cotta. Each product was amazing. The cheese was rich and full of profound umami. I have never tasted a better example of Parmigiano anywhere. The ricotta, as well, was superb and the panna cotta just delicious.
When ready for market, the cheeses are sliced and vacuum sealed. Needless to say, I bought some 37 month old Vacca Bianca Parmigiano to bring home. I wished that I could have brought some ricotta and butter too, but unfortunately I had to pass on those.