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Crack Heard Round The World: Parmigiano Reggiano Wheels

Over the weekend Whole Food Market attempted to earn a Guinness World Record for “Most Parmigiano Reggiano Wheels Ever Cracked” at the same time. Gillian Riley, author of The Oxford Companion to Italian Food weighs in on this cheesy affair.

An almighty crack.

As the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano surges towards the Guinness Book of Records the thought of all those craggy wheels simultaneously rent asunder reminds us of Michelangelo’s labours at the rock face in Pietrasanta near Lucca in Tus-cany in the summer of 1518. He and his team were selecting marble for the tomb of Pope Julius II, and his titanic struggles with the obdurate raw material were as blistering as the clashes between the artist and his client. Using the strength within the marble to detach the desired lump was a prelude to releasing the form already latent in the block, described in a sonnet by Michelangelo:

Non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concetto
c’un marmo solo in sé non circonscriva
col suo superchio, e solo a quello arriva
la man che ubbidisce all’intelletto.

The greatest artist has no concept
that is not already present in a block of marble
beneath its outward form, and this can only be reached
by the hand that obeys the intellect.

The combination of hands on physical skills and sublime inspiration expounded in this sonnet are the qualities deployed in the making of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The great wheels contain the imagined essence of grass and hay and milk and the odours of pas-tures and fragrant byres, released by the tool of the cheesemonger, exploring fault lines in the mature cheese as the sculptor teases form and meaning from the rock. The large heart-shaped tool, a sharp point at the bottom and a stout handle at the top, will prize off a lump of cheese the desired size as accurately as the stonemason’s tools.

The crystalline graininess found in parmesan is umami, a natural flavour enhancer. The concept of umami was unknown to Michelangelo, although he enjoyed the effects of it when parmesan was used as a condiment or as an ingredient in many cooked dishes. This combination of various ingredients to get an enhanced burst of flavour is similar to his use of colori cangianti in the Sistine Chapel, where a loose application of con-trasting colours one on top of the other produces a shimmering intensity.

Although not rejecting Vasari’s claim that he had a mind above material pleasures, Michelangelo cared enough about his food and drink to jot down some menus on the back of a letter, probably during his time in Pietrasanta. These were Lenten menus so no cheese or eggs, [more maybe in some other blog…] Pasta and some sophisticated vegetable dishes, (braised fennel, spinach, a salad) with umami effect from salt herrings and anchovies, show an enthusiasm for simple but sophisticated eating. He would have enjoyed the full impact of parmesan at the banquets organised by Bartolomeo Scappi, where it was served as it often is today in chunks hewn from a larger lump. We too can enjoy the michelangelesque qualities of Parmigiano-Reggiano, towering as it does above all other cheeses as the artist towered over his contemporaries.

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