Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Of cheese and place


In the country of Bengodi, where the vines are tied up with sausages, there is a mountain of grated Parmesan cheese, and the folks who live there do nothing but boil macaroni and ravioli in chicken stock, then roll them down the mountain and compete for who can eat the most. Or longer, more flowery words to this effect. The source is Giovanni Boccaccio in the Decameron, meaning that by the 1340s a cheese named ‘Parmigiano’ was already known outside of its land of origin as a proverbial delicacy, and one of its quintessential uses – to be grated on pasta dishes – was already established. The country of Bengodi is the forerunner to Pinocchio’s Land of Toys: an imaginary place of fabulous riches and easy pleasures designed to lure the simple-minded into doing something catastrophically foolish. But I just might be tempted, for a remote chance at such a reward.


Historians date the origins of Parmigiano Reggiano to three centuries prior to the Decameron, following the drainage by Cistercian and Benedectine monks of vast tracts of the plain South of the Po river, in what are now Emilia and the south-eastern corner of Lombardy. Having created large, lush prairies ideal for the local cattle – a variety good for pulling the plough as well as producing milk and meat – the monks went on to devise a hard cheese that could be transported over great distances (initially, at least as far as Boccaccio’s Florence, later to the rest of Europe) and last for a long period of time. It might have been primarily a way for them to lock some of their land wealth into a marketable product, but over the centuries it became a much broader cultural marker and an important element of the shared heritage of the region.


The original Parmigiano was made in small square or octagonal factories called caselli which remained substantially unchanged until the last century. My mother remembers that in her village there was one in every street. The method for producing the cheese was also unchanged until the industrial revolution, when steam heating was introduced. Another concession made at the time was the use of Fresian cows in place of the less productive Reggiane rosse introduced 1500 years earlier by the Longobards. But most procedures – such as the turning of the wheels of cheese – still have to be carried out manually, as does the theatrical, almost ritualistic quality control by consortium inspectors who tap on the wheels at 12 months and judge the maturation by the sound. Another aspect that modernity hasn’t found a way to subvert is time: Parmigiano is aged for no less than 24 months, and sometimes as many as 36 or 40 months.

Daily habits, sustenance, traditions, the very landscape: these are some of the aspects of life in the country of Parmigiano that have been shaped over the centuries by this cheese. Personally, I can say that my ability to continue to source it in New Zealand, and use it to make dishes like mericonda or cappelletti, is something that I genuinely cherish, and that helps me to maintain vital cultural and familial connections with my place of birth. But today’s post is really about the intrinsic value, beyond all marketing rhetoric, of the genuine product.

It offends me to see what passes for ‘parmesan’ in countries that allow for the name to be used so wantonly, including New Zealand. In our case, it’s not just that they’re cheap knock-offs: they are in fact expensive knock-offs, routinely outpricing the imported product, be it Parmigiano Reggiano or its slightly inferior but still excellent neighbour, Grana Padano. It’s stupid cheese, so why would you buy it? But it bothers me also that people might buy the wet, non-aged, slightly putrid smelling knock-off and mistake it for a good approximation of the real thing, thus trampling over nine hundred years of a history I lay very partial but nonetheless fond claim to.

There is no such thing, of course, as absolute fidelity: things change, products change, as Parmigiano itself has. Besides, the strict artisanal adherence by local cheese makers to the old ways, similar to what I practice when I follow the family recipes, might bother me more: it would be appropriation of another kind, the transmission of knowledge and gestures not through lived practice but suddenly and wholesale, subject to market and consumer demand. Even the transplanting of Italian coffee culture to New Zealand took the best part of a generation, during which time it was able to produce original elements. In its best forms, it acknowledges places of origin and tries to protect the livelihood of local growers, which is also a model for looking at food history as a complex and continuous process.

The earliest attempt to tie Parmigiano Reggiano to its birthplace dates back to an act of the notary of the Duchy of Parma in 1612, which may also be the oldest document protecting a designation of origin in history. While its function at any given time is undoubtedly to safeguard private commercial interests as well, this protection – currently enshrined in European law – is vital for the survival of the cheese-making tradition, thus ultimately the product itself. You may be able to make it somewhere else to the same specifications, but you won’t be able to give it this particular name: the privilege belongs to its custodians.


Perhaps this object above all is why I think it matters. The spino is the device used to mix the curds and break them into small granules, so called because originally the cheese maker would use a branch of hawthorn (in Italian, biancospino). This would sometimes result in sticks or splinters mixing with the cheese, so a variety of implements were devised, but the best ones proved to be those that matched the untidy, asymmetrical nature of the branches. The design shown above became established in the 18th century. No two spini of course are the same, but each is an object of simple, practical genius and beauty. Like the rolling pin that belonged to my grandmother, which it resembles, it symbolises for me the best of a millenary popular tradition, and the tenacious, daily struggle to make our food go further.

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