Thursday, February 09, 2006

Faster, Bessie, FASTER!

Big ruffling in the cheese industry over Kraft's decision to make and market a Parmesan that is cured for 6 months - half the time of the real, serious stuff from Italy. The question is: can you still call it Parmesan?

Seriously, I can't decide which is funnier: the fact that Kraft Parmesan is considered important enough to ruffle Italians making actual, serious cheese, or the abundance of cheese puns.

If eating parmesan out of one of those cylindrical tubes is your thing (nothing wrong with it, just saying), you probably don't care that much about the nutty undertones or serious development of taste the way the truly cheesy do. You probably do want it to taste just like the last time you had it, though, and you probably are a bit attached to the packaging whether you know it or not.

This is food science at it's best/worst. Love it or hate it, this is what the industry does: tries to get the best product it can make acceptable to people at the lowest price. It still comes down to this: buy the stuff in the tube, or go in search of one cured longer with more sophisticated flavor perhaps. Just remember, if you're vegetarian, the Kraft stuff isn't on a technicality to be determined by you: rennet comes from calves' bellies. You do have to credit Kraft: they introduced this stuff in 1945, when it must have been considered quite exotic if you weren't Italian...

Kraft’s Parmesan plan grates on some purists
Thursday, February 09, 2006

WASHINGTON — In Italy, it takes at least a year to cure Parmigiano Reggiano, the original Parmesan cheese.

The U.S. standard is 10 months, but Kraft Foods Inc., seller of the green shaker can that brought Parmesan to the masses, says it can speed the process and wants a six-month standard.

"We have found excellent consumer acceptance of the new product," Kraft counsel Sheryl Marcouiller wrote in a letter to the Food and Drug Administration.

The idea grates on the Italians and on smaller U.S. companies.

Cheese cured in six months "is not Parmesan," said Paul Bauer of Wisconsin’s Antigo Cheese Co. "Parmesan is cheese that develops its flavor over time."

Months, even years, of aging go into the nutty flavor, the crumbly texture and the pungent aroma of a fine Parmesan cheese.

Parmesan’s history dates to the Middle Ages, when monks in northern Italy developed the recipe.

The ingredients for Parmigiano Reggiano are simple: unpasteurized raw milk, salt and rennet, an enzyme that curdles the milk. But the process is painstaking. The cheese is created in carefully heated copper cauldrons. It rests in molds and then soaks in brine for several days. Finally, it spends at least a year, often two, sitting on a shelf, where it’s turned and brushed.

The taste "is drastically different depending on how long it is aged, and how it is handled while aging," said Andrea Bonati, president of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, which represents makers of the Italian original.

"Cheese produced under a 6-month aging process may be produced faster, in greater quantities and for a cheaper price," Bonati said in a letter to the FDA. "But it will not be Parmesan cheese."

Only cheese from Parma and nearby provinces, made by about 600 strictly regulated dairies, can be called Parmigiano Reggiano. Made elsewhere in the world, the same type of cheese is called Parmesan.

Kraft introduced grated Parmesan to Americans in 1945. It also sells shredded Parmesan under the DiGiorno brand. Kraft is the biggest American producer of Parmesan.

In 1997, Kraft figured out a way to speed the curing process by altering how the cheese is cultured. Kraft officials gained permission from the FDA to test-market the cheese two years later, and since then, Kraft has sold about 300 million pounds of faster-cured Parmesan.

"As you would expect, extensive consumer testing was done before we changed the production process to assure that consumers were very satisfied with the product and that it performed to our high quality standards," said Kraft spokeswoman Alyssa Burns.

It’s a business decision for Kraft, which says the faster process could free up plant space and cut costs.

Kraft is not alone. At least five other companies want to test-market Parmesan with an abbreviated curing time.

Opponents worry that changing the standard might jeopardize the Parmesan name. Italy already has exclusive rights to the name Parmigiano-Reggiano, and some U.S. companies worry European officials will persuade the World Trade Organization to restrict use of Parmesan, too.

International trade is treacherous, said Rusty Bishop, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Research. "It’s a slippery cheese wedge, and if you lose one, then everything else crumbles," Bishop said.


Blogger Steven Rosenberg said...

It seems that the real cheesy people can keep Pargiano Reggiano as the name, and they can leave Parmesan for the six-month variety. That way America wins. And we get one up on those French. That said, the grate-it-yourself real thing is WAY WAY WAY better. But there's always a place in my heart for that friendly green canister. And mustard.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Ilene said...

Mustard being key ingredient in that dorm-room favorite, pasta with a stick of butter and mustard? Is the parmesan optional? Is it because the mustard in question is French's?

For those not in the know, the sad part about the above recipe is that it actually tastes all right. If that's all you have.

10:11 PM  

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