Parmesan cheese: Meet Italy's pioneering cheese master

Bertinelli cheese Parmesan from the Bertinelli dairy is made by the only woman cheese master

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What makes a great cheese? As the World Cheese Awards get under way, the woman responsible for some of the best-tasting parmesan in Italy opens the doors of the dairy where she works.

"I grew up with milk in my veins," says Catia Zambrelli, the only woman cheese master in Italy's cheese industry in the region of Emilia Romagna.

Hailing from the Parma region of Italy, parmesan, also known as Parmigiano-Reggiano, is one of the world's most popular cheeses.

It's tangy, crumbly and hard, and its pungent smell graces fridges across the UK.

It gets its intense flavour from unpasteurised milk and its long maturation process, something that can take years to learn, as Catia Zambrelli has found.

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Learning to perfect the cheese has not been an easy journey for the woman who treats parmesan wheels like she would her own children, despite being born into a family of cheese-makers.

During her school summer holidays she spent the mornings in the dairy, pretending to make the cheese.

Her father allowed her to touch the curd and feel how it changed during each stage of the process, but it wasn't until she was 17 that he actually allowed her to produce the cheese.

"Officially he was making the cheese, but I soon started cooking the cheese myself following his instructions," she says.

An operation which put her father out of work meant she was allowed to try making the cheese her own way.

Parmesan cheese store Parmigiano-Reggiano needs to mature in perfect conditions for months

"One year later when the consortium inspectors came to check over the cheese batch I'd made, and just four months into production, they said my cheese was better than my father's," she explains.

With her father's traditional views and her slightly radical ones, the partnership became difficult and Ms Zambrelli began to work with her husband, who was also a cheese master.

She cooked the cheese and he took the credit, but farmers only trusted the team because there was a man in the business.

When she divorced she says she had a tough time convincing farmers to give her a job and spent three years working in a supermarket before joining the Bertinelli Dairy in Parma.

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"I had to demonstrate that I was much better than my male counterparts, because if I made a mistake, the entire cheese community would know about it in no time at all," she says.

All the cheese manufactured by the Bertinelli Dairy bears the Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO mark to certify its authenticity.

While some cheeses mature for 12 months, many take between 18 and 48 months, depending on the cheese and the dairy where it's made.

In Italy, parmesan is often served drizzled with balsamic vinegar as an appetiser.

Add the inedible hard rind to a jar of olive oil along with a couple of bulbs of garlic and it creates a parmesan infused oil, great for dipping bread.

Parmesan will be just one of every type of cheese imaginable being judged at the World Cheese Awards 2013 on November 27.

Judges will be looking at 2,777 cheeses from more than 30 countries, made from the milk of cows, sheep, goats and buffalo, all vying to be crowned World Champion Cheese 2013.

Many of the cheeses are produced in an artisanal way, using ancient processes and production techniques.

Catia Zambrelli has been working at the Bertinelli Dairy for three years, a family business which has been producing milk since 1895.

"Today my professionalism is acknowledged, but it has taken a lot of work and sometimes bitterness to be fully respected as a cheese master," she says.

Parmesan cheese is shaped in water using muslin Parmesan cheese is shaped in water using muslin
Ilaria Bertinelli making cheese Catia Zambrelli is known to "feel" the cooking process with her hands
Catia Zambrelli making cheese She also makes ricotta as a by-product of cheese-making

The special skill that sets her apart from her competitors is that she can "feel" the cooking process through her fingers, feeling when the curds need a slightly higher temperature, more cooking time or when there might be something wrong with the batch.

"I like calling the cheese wheels 'my girls' because I do feel they are a bit like my children. I see the cheese being born and grow in the maturation room," she explains.

"I am proud when I see the wheels growing old in the room, being healthy, but I am concerned and I suffer when they have problems: it is really a bit similar to what I feel as a mother towards my daughter."

The Bertinelli farm produces feed for cattle, milk for the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and whey for pigs, whose meat is turned into ham.

But cheese is the largest source of income for the business and it takes at least a year before official Inspectors of the Consortium (which offers the PDO certificate) give feedback on it.

Twelve months' production means a year's worth of profit sitting on shelves, as the cheeses wait to be given the thumbs up.

EU food quality schemes:

  • PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) guarantees products which must be produced, processed and prepared within their original geographical area using traditional methods
  • PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) protects products which are linked to a geographical area where at least one stage of production, processing or preparation must take place
  • TSG (Traditional Speciality Guaranteed) protects products with traditional names not restricted to a geographical area

Source: EU agricultural product quality policy

Ilaria Bertinelli took over the reins from her father and she and her brother now run the company.

"At full capacity the dairy produces 20 wheels each day or 10 vats, but the amount of milk varies on the time of year," she says.

"The wheels are stored in the dairy until they're sold. Parmigiano-Reggiano can't be sold before it is 12 months old, but is considered to reach its ideal degree of maturation at around 24 months."

However they also keep another cheese for 36 months, called Millesimato, a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese made with the best milk from cows on the Medesano farm on the hills on Parma.

The best milk from cows is produced in the first 100 days after calving, as milk from the new mothers is high in protein and once curdled it provides a greater yield in the heating vat and can be cooked at lower temperatures.

The cheese is sold direct to the customer because the dairy prefers to maintain ownership, pursuing full transparency and product identity.

However it's not just parmesan that is made. Ricotta is a by-product of the cheese production, and is also produced by Catia Zambrelli.

In the Parma area, ricotta is the main ingredient for the local delicacy of stuffed ravioli made with ricotta and Swiss chard, or Tortelli d'erbetta.

Despite producing amazing cheeses, there are no training schools that teach cheese-making in Parma, and so there is a fear Catia Zambrelli will remain the only woman cheese master for some time yet.

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