THOMPSON: How Italy is cracking down on fake Parmesan cheese | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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THOMPSON: How Italy is cracking down on fake Parmesan cheese



If I had to eat just one cuisine the rest of my life, it would be the regional and seasonal dishes of Italy. Don’t get me wrong…I love the food of France…and Spain…and New Orleans…but I could live with just Italian food.

Italians take everything food seriously…really seriously. Whatever the food…there are Italians whose passion is so focused…so precise…you’re assured of getting the very best. Think tomatoes…Marzano. Think ham…Prosciutto di Parma. Think sauces…Bolognese.

I can take you to scores of restaurants in Italy…famous and not…that serve handmade pastas that would make you curse your mom’s spaghetti. It’s inevitable that when you’re good at what you do…people who aren’t…well, they cheat, and try to profit from your reputation.

Take, for example, another marvellous Italian product…cheese. There are several great Italian cheeses…but one of my favourites is Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is not to be confused with the jar of grated Kraft Parmesan on aisle five at your local grocery store. This sort-of namesake isn’t the same cheese…and the cost is a small fraction of the true Italian cheese. 

That’s not to say U.S. or Canadian Parmesan is bad…it’s just that the stuff from Italy is that much better…and better for you. Adding to any confusion is that the name Parmesan everywhere in the world but North America is the short name for real Parmigiano-Regianno.

This tasty Italian cheese is known for its characteristically nutty and strong flavour… combining salty, bitter and sweet tastes. It has a grainy and crumbly texture in chunks, with its colour varying from dark to light yellow...and can be shaved or ground. Parmigiano-Reggiano is made from cow’s milk and aged from 12-36 months.

It is rich in protein and fat and is chock full of vitamins and minerals. Specifically, just one ounce of authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano has 9 grams of protein. It has equally high levels of vitamins A, B6, B12, calcium, copper, zinc, and other antioxidants and minerals that our bodies love. It is made of skimmed cow’s milk, salt, and an enzyme called rennet for curdling…and even those who are lactose-intolerant can eat it.

The stuff on aisle five in a jar or hanging in a bag in the cooler section of your grocery has little real cheese and lots of preservatives and anti-caking agents. You’ll find lots of hard-to-pronounce chemicals and almost none of the good vitamins and minerals among the list of ingredients.

Now, even though the real stuff from Italy is good and good for you…we shouldn’t eat a pound a week. As Ben Franklin professed…all things in moderation (though he rarely practiced what he preached). The point is…eat it regularly - shaved on a salad or granulated over Spaghetti Bolognese - and you’ll be healthier for it.

Of course, it’s not exactly a secret…among either culinary or health enthusiasts. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the estimated global market for Parmigiano-Reggiano was at US$15.8 Billion in 2020, and is expected to reach US$18.4 Billion by 2026.

So, back to my earlier reference that when something becomes really good, and popular…some people will cheat and profit handsomely by capitalizing on the name recognition by introducing fraudulent products that are nothing like the real thing…except in name or label.

In the U.S. and Canada alone, the amount of fake Parmigiano-Reggiano comes close to the amount of authentic cheese sold…$US2.2 Billion and US$2.8 Billion, respectively. But now the Italians are employing technology to thwart counterfeiters.

The Parmigiano-Reggiano makers have teamed up with Kaasmerk Matec - a leading producer of casein cheese marks and p-Chip, which creates digital tracing technology - to put tiny, food-safe transponders in legitimate wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano. A wave of a wand detector over a real wheel of cheese…you hear a beep. Fakes are now much easier to detect.

Is Parmigiano-Reggiano worth it? Well, you’re paying for the meticulous process assuring authentic cheese made to the highest standards. The entire process is governed by DOP -  Denominazione di Origine Protetta - laws. The DOP laws determine exactly where Parmigiano-Reggiano has to be made and where its ingredients originate…Parma, Modena, Reggio Emilia regions, and some areas of Bologna and Mantua.

The laws start with how the cows are treated and fed to the finished product. Every 72-pound wheel is stamped and certified to be authentic…and is worth more than US$1,000. Like you, I want to know I’m getting what I pay for…and at US$20 per pound or more…let’s hear it for technology and those little transponders in wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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