The Red Cow Parmesan Cheese

by Chikashi

Vacche Rosse parmesan on Archimede Seguso for Elsa Peretti bowl

On the way to breakfast at Sant Ambroeus in Milan last week, I was moaning about the fact that good Parmesan cheese is rarely available outside of Italy. To be sure, it is becoming more difficult to find one even in Italy these days, especially through mass distribution channels.

It was chucking it down, but Marco led me on a slight detour and took me to Strada e Zucca, a salumeria / gastronomeria / rosticceria on Piazza del Carmine. There, he introduced me to Parmigiano-Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse, Parmesan cheese made from the milk of the red cow. The breed of Vacca Rossa cattle is said to have come to the Po plains with the Lombards. They were kept in the stables of Countess Matilde of Canossa and in the courtyards of the Benedictine monks who used their milk to make the earliest-known Parmesan. The Vacche Rosse produce less milk than other breeds, but their milk produces more cheese because of its particular protein and casein. However, it is a small production by default.

At the Azienda Agricola Antica Corte delle Vacche Rosse (suitably mouthful, isn’t it?), they continue to be fed only certified OGM-free grass, hay and grain. Their meadows are said to contain about 70 varieties of grass and wild flowers per square metre. Such are the factors that determine the unique quality of their milk.

The Vacca Rossa Parmesan is matured for a minimum of 24 months, some for 36 months and for 48 months. The result is a Parmesan that tastes sweet and delicately complex and cuts like butter. For cooking, some will insist on using Parmesan that is matured no more than 12 months. There is some logic to that, and similarly, the red cow Parmesan is best enjoyed on its own, with a good glass of red wine, perhaps a dry Lambrusco.

As with buying any Parmesan, I would buy several smaller chunks (500 g or less) rather than one big piece, individually vacuum packed so that you do not expose a singular large piece to ambient air whilst you chip away to fill your mouth. Opened chunks should be tightly wrapped with plastic wrap and then with aluminium foil to shield it from both air and light, and stored in a refrigerator.

The only problem with getting lots of Parmesan to take home was that I could not take some panettone from Sant Ambroeus, which is to die for given that theirs does not have that horrid artificial flavour that ordinary panettone tends to have. You can’t have everything at once, can you?