I unabashedly love cheese in almost all forms (sorry, blue, it just will never be a match for us). And I particularly love long-aged cheeses, like cave-aged Gruyere and Parmagiano-Reggiano. I like the rich flavours, the small crystals that form during aging.
So, when Sobeys asked if I wanted to come and help crack open a 33-kilogram (73-pound) wheel of the Italian cheese at their location in Strathcona Square, there was only one answer.
Like Champagne, which can only bear that name if it originates in Champagne, France, Parmagiano-Reggiano is only produced in one area of Italy. The unpasteurized milk must also come from the region (and the cows can only eat grasses and natural feed from the area) and that’s where the large wheels of cheese are aged. The wheels at Sobeys are aged for 30 months before they are shipped out to be cracked and sold.
Parmagiano-Reggiano is the only cheese that can be imported that is made from unpasteurized milk.
There’s nothing quite like seeing an entire wheel.
Three types of tools are used to split and divide the wheel: the “claw,” which is used to score the rind; wedges, which are rocked back and forth to create some space; and the chisel, which ultimately pries apart the wheel.
Sobeys Strathcona deli and a la carte manager Elaine Tonkovic, scored the cheese with the claw all the way around before using the wedges to start prying apart the wheel. Flipping over the wheel is a bit of a workout, but it doesn’t take too much effort or pressure to get it open. (It just takes a bit of patience.)
Once into halves, I gave it a go. Patience is not one of my strong suits, so Elaine had to keep reminding me not to force things. (There’s a life lesson in cracking cheese wheels, I suppose.) And it was pretty satisfying when it suddenly just split.
After the splitting, the wheel of Parmagiano-Reggiano is broken down into smaller pieces. Some are sold as small wedges, while Sobeys also sells it shaved or grated. They also sell the rinds.
Of course, the best part was sampling some of the tasty shards from the centre of the wheel. We had them drizzled with just a bit of balsamic vinegar. Though, at other times, I’ve also enjoyed Parmagiano-Reggiano topped with a little bit of honey. And, of course, sprinkled over roasted asparagus and tomato sauce on pasta.
And don’t throw away the rind. I cut mine off and keep them in a bag in the freezer, pulling them out to pop into long-simmering pasta sauces (like bolognese) or soups such as Minestrone. The rinds add a lot of deep, rich flavour with no additional work. (Bonus: pull them out before serving the dish and eat the little bits of melted cheese. Cook’s treat!)