Could there be an imitation cheese lurking on your shelf? Parmesan cheese, a simple delight for many has an intriguing history. It originated in, you guessed it, the Italian province of Parma and has been prepared for the past eight centuries there. But first, let’s get back to the history of this symbolic city.
Parma is located in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, which among other things, boasts a historic Jewish community. During the mid 14th century, the Visconti dukes of Mantua ruled Parma. During the rule of Visconti, Jews were permitted to partake in business as moneylenders.
In 1449 the city succumbed to a new ruler, Francesco Sforza. During this surrender, the privileges of the Jews of Parma were maintained and they received the support and protection of the city of Parma.
For the Jews, things took a turn for the worse when the Monte di Pietà, a Christian loan-bank, was established in Parma in 1488. Jewish loan-bankers began to leave the town because they were no longer permitted to carry on their moneylending activities or reside in Parma. Jews removed themselves from the city and established themselves in the neighboring villages. Jewish communities were formed in the small towns of Borgo San Domenico, Busseto, Colorno, Cortemaggiore, Firenzuola, and Monticelli.
During the French occupation at the turn of the 19th century, the French Commissaire Moreau de Saint Méry gave the Parmesan Jews equal rights and legitimized their religion on July 12, 1803. Jews from the outlying towns returned to the city, and later in the century, the rejuvenated community of Parma created a constitution and organized for the building of a synagogue. The community totaled 510 members in 1840, and 684 in 1881, declining to 415 in 1911. In 1931, there were 232 Jews in the community of Parma. During the Holocaust at least 12 Jews were sent to extermination camps from Parma. After the war, approximately 86 remained, which dropped to 60 by 1969. In 2001 only 30 Jews remained in Parma. Today, the Palatine Library in Parma contains one of the richest collections of Hebrew manuscripts in the world.
Despite its long Jewish history, Parma is undoubtedly best known for its cheese. During the Middle Ages, monks began to make the hard cheese and by the Renaissance it was a household staple. The cheese was called Parmesano by Italian nobles in the 1530’s, meaning simply “of or from Parma.” Those who lived closer to the region of Reggio referred to their cheese as Reggiano.
In the name of this great cheese, the producers in Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena and Mantua, joined together to form an association called the Consorzio del Grana Tipico. The Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano association was formed to standardize the production of their cheeses. The official name of the cheese is now Parmigiano Reggiano. The European courts ruled that Parmigiano Reggiano is the only hard cheese that can legally be called Parmesan. They took into account the historical perspective of Parma-Reggio and its impact on creating the cheese. This law is only enforced in Europe, meaning that there are imitators in other parts of the world.
The cheese is curdled with animal rennet: enzymes derived from the stomachs of calves, lambs or goats. In order for the cheese to be considered kosher, the rennet must be extracted from a kosher animal (animals must be of a permitted type and slaughtered in a particular way according to Jewish religious law in order for their meat to be considered kosher).
Until recently, there were only minor productions of authentic kosher Parmesan for observant Jews to enjoy. However, a major producer decided to start a kosher line and a kosher cheese wheel was presented at the Israeli pavilion at the Milan world’s fair in 2015. It had a Star of David and the word kosher written on it in Hebrew. The production of Kosher food results in higher costs and requires separate shelf space for the cheese’s long maturation, which makes kosher cheese making a complicated affair. The unification of two different cultures, Italian and Jewish, both of which put great importance on food, is a beautiful thing. Food has the power to bring people together and to create memories. Now, observant Jews in Italy and beyond can enjoy this storied and delicious Italian cheese.
*Ilise Posner is a student at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA).