Cheese of the Month - November 2016

Parmesan, ‘king’ of Italian cheeses, boasts rich flavor

Editor’s Note: “Cheese of the Month” is Cheese Market News’ exclusive profile series exploring various cheese types. Each month, CMN highlights a different cheese in this feature, giving our readers a comprehensive look at production, marketing, sales and in-depth aspects of each profiled cheese type. Please read on to learn about this month’s featured cheese: Parmesan.

By Stephanie Awe

MADISON, Wis. — Known as the “king of Italian cheeses,” Parmesan, a grating cheese, originates from northern Italy — the most famous regions being Parma and Reggio, which is where Parmigiano Reggiano comes from, according to Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist, Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.

Parmigiano Reggiano’s name is a protected designation of origin (PDO) to the Parma, Reggio and Modena regions of northern Italy, Sommer says. Traditionally, the cheese is made with raw milk from cows which are fed only grasses. It is traditionally aged for two years, he adds.

Another famous Parmesan, Grana Padano, also is a PDO. It too is produced in northern Italy but in the Po River Valley, Sommer says. It is typically aged around 18 months and also is made with raw milk from grass-fed cows. Its flavor is a bit milder than Parmigiano Reggiano, Sommer adds.

In Italy, these cheeses typically are made in large wheels weighing around 60 to 88 pounds, with Parmigiano Reggiano toward the lighter end of the range and Grana Padano toward the heavier end of the range, he adds.

It is likely that Parmesan manufacture was brought to the United States by early Italian immigrants, Sommer says. Some of these immigrants settled in the northern milk-producing regions of Wisconsin, where they thought the topography and weather was similar to that of northern Italy, he says.

Traditionally, Parmesan in the United States was made in wheels weighing about 22 pounds, much smaller than their Italian counterparts, Sommer says.

Today, Parmesan — typically made with part-skim milk and thermophilic, or “heat loving,” cultures — is expensive to make because it is low yield, he adds. Therefore, unlike traditional methods of brine salting the cheese, some manufacturers in recent years have moved to dry salting and forming the cheese in blocks or barrels instead of wheels.

Parmesan’s production in the United States totaled nearly 340 million pounds in 2015, the third-highest total production among the nation’s Italian cheeses behind Mozzarella and Provolone, according to USDA’s Dairy Products 2015 Summary published in April 2016. This number was up about 12 percent from 2014.

Parmesan has a U.S. standard of identity set by FDA, which states that Parmesan cheese does not contain more than 32 percent of moisture, and its solids contain at least 32 percent of milkfat. In addition, the cheese must be cured for at least 10 months.

While 10 months is the minimum aging time for Parmesan, some manufacturers age the cheese up to two years in order to achieve a more intense flavor — with typical flavor attributes including some sweetness, some nuttiness and some fruitiness that resembles roasted pineapple, Sommer says.

Schuman Cheese, headquartered in Fairfield, New Jersey, offers several Parmesan varieties that differ based on age along with other factors, including milk type, recipe and the cheesemaking process, according to Christophe Megevand, head cheesemaker, Schuman Cheese.

“The best flavor comes from cheese that is aged 14 months or more; we have many varieties that are aged from 18 to 24 months,” Megevand says.

Schuman Cheese’s flagship brand, Cello, includes a Copper Kettle Parmesan that is made using Old World methods and cooked in a traditional copper vat, creating a unique flavor with a “bold, distinctive, caramel finish,” Megevand says.

Similarly, Sartori Co., Plymouth, Wisconsin, offers its Classic Parmesan and SarVecchio Parmesan, which are handcrafted and made in the Italian tradition, according to Mike Matucheski, one of Sartori’s Master Cheesemakers. The biggest difference between the two varieties is the aging process. SarVecchio is aged 20 or more months, whereas the Classic Parmesan is aged a minimum of 10 months.

This aging contributes to differences in flavors, according to the company. SarVecchio contains prominent notes of caramel and has a creamy finish, and the Classic Parmesan has a more mellow, nutty taste.

• Parmesan and naming rights

Parmesan is one of several cheese names, along with others such as Feta and Asiago, that the European Union (EU) is trying to gain exclusive rights to in the United States.

According to a summary of a recent study by Informa Economics IEG, commissioned by the Consortium for Common Food Names (CCFN), U.S. cheese consumption could decline up to 21 percent — or 2.3 billion pounds — over 10 years should the EU succeed. This consumption decline would equal up to $5.2 billion in lost cheese sales, the study says.

This decline would likely be the result of two main reasons, according to Shawna Morris, senior director, CCFN. First, consumers would likely continue to purchase products with names they recognize. In addition, because imported product often is more expensive, there may be an overall decrease in cheese consumption, she says.

Morris adds that it is difficult to predict how the U.S. dairy industry would react due in part to its diverse cheese and dairy sector. As a result, the EU’s success could lead to a “splintering” of the marketplace, where each company uses different terms, she says.

“That would create tremendous upheaval, costs and chaos in the U.S. market for no reason other than to hand the Europeans an undeserved monopoly in products that have been widely produced throughout the U.S. and elsewhere for decades,” she says. “It’s an outcome that must be firmly rejected.”

Bob Starkey, vice president of business development, Winona Foods, Green Bay, Wisconsin, says he would be surprised if the EU succeeds but sees two things that could occur: domestic producers may need to come up with alternative names, or they may revert to using the word “style.”

“On the one side, it gives us an opportunity to create our brand and tell our own story, but on the other side, it makes it more difficult for consumers,” he says, adding that consumer education would be an ongoing effort and that the change would be a setback rather than an end to the industry.

A similar sentiment is expressed at Sartori Co.

“We’ll cross that bridge if and when it comes in regards to domestically labeled Parmesan,” says Sam Allison, export manager, Sartori.

• Adulterated Parmesan

In February of this year, Bloomberg News released findings from an investigation in which store-bought grated cheese was tested for wood-pulp content by an independent laboratory. This investigation followed FDA’s discovery that Castle Cheese Inc. had included fillers in its advertised 100-percent Parmesan.

Bloomberg’s results revealed that other products on the market, while advertised as 100-percent Parmesan, contained other fillers.

Due at least in part to such findings, some facilities have gone out of business, Starkey adds.

“That’s the best thing that’s happened to the industry,” he says. “You can change the composition of a product as long as you label it with the correct nomenclature ... It was definitely a black eye for the industry, but in the long haul it’s given us a better market that we’re all on the same playing field.”

Schuman Cheese recently launched its “True Cheese” trust mark, an on-package seal that is intended to verify product quality and manufacturing integrity.

“Recent studies reveal that consumers are more concerned than ever before about ethical behavior, transparency, visibility to the supply chain and authenticity,” says Melyssa Jolivert, senior associate of corporate communications, Schuman Cheese.

The mark will appear on Schuman Cheese and snacks sold in supermarket and mass retail channels.

With the launch of the mark, the company also announced a relationship with Covance Food Solutions, Madison, Wisconsin, to provide independent testing of True Cheese labeled products. Covance will randomly select products from retail locations to verify their quality, Jolivert says.

• Retail sales

Volume of Parmesan retail sales has grown annually since 2010, up 5 percent from September 2015 to September 2016 (fixed weight only, U.S. multi-outlet and convenience stores), according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data courtesy of Dairy Management Inc.

Parmesan’s retail sales also are somewhat seasonal, with fewer pounds sold in summer months compared to fall and winter. However, while there is a slight uptick of Parmesan’s national distribution around the holiday season, it remains fairly flat throughout the year, the IRI data says.

Parmesan’s highest price point for 2015 and 2016 occurred in January, according to the data. However, the year-over-year increase is minimal, with January 2015 at $8.01 and January 2016 at $8.02 per pound.

While grated is the most popular form of Parmesan with a 59.5-percent share of sales, the form is showing a slight sales decline (U.S. multi-outlet and convenience stores, latest 52 weeks ending Sept. 4, 2016). Finely shredded, partial round, chunk, ball and shaved forms experienced growth over the same time period, according to the data.

On an annual basis as of Sept. 4, 2016, about 55 percent of total U.S. households purchased Parmesan cheese across all U.S. outlets, according to the National Consumer Survey (IRI Group). This number slightly increased over the past year, driven by an increasing amount of repeat purchasers, according to the data.

• Applications, trends and marketing tactics

Schuman Cheese Parmesan works well for culinary applications, such as sauces and toppings, according to Megevand, who adds that the cheeses also are distinctive enough to sit on a cheese board and enjoy with a glass of wine.

Sartori’s Parmesan also is used on cheese boards, as well as pairings to pestos and pizzas, says William Libby, corporate chef, Sartori.

“One of the more imaginative uses we’ve seen is a SarVecchio crisp in lieu of a taco shell,” Libby says. “The fan said it was her go-to, gluten free alternative for tacos.”

Winona offers various solution-based Parmesan cheeses to its customers, including imitation Parmesan, blends and 100-percent Parmesan, which fall under its Della Terra brand. These cheeses are sold across retail, foodservice, industrial, ingredient and private label.

The company recently released its new Saddle Pack stand-up pouch. These two, 24-ounce packs have a handle attached to create a “saddle,” allowing consumers to purchase two smaller packs and open one at a time so that they stay fresher for longer, says Kaitlin Stankowski, regional sales and marketing manager, Winona.

The packs also take up less space than conventional PET plastic jars and come in varieties including Fancy Shredded Parmesan, Shaved Parmesan, Shaved Italian Blend and Shredded Italian Blend.

Ultimately, Stankowski says consumers tend to feel special when eating Parmesan because it is a more expensive cheese. Its consumption reflects where consumer taste is headed, as it is used as a topper on foods and, increasingly, on cheese plates.

“Tastes are going in that direction,” she says. “As we evolve, we want more of the richer flavors.”


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