Can you hear that? It's the sound of Italians stampeding, wielding their cheese knives (the special almond-shaped ones, obvs), and falling over each to bang down the door of the the University of Parma in the hope of getting their hands on new research that claims to prove whether their Parmigiano-Reggiano is actually a legit Parmesan—or if they've been paying premium price for a basic hard cheese blended from cheap ingredients.
A group of food science researchers at the university in northern Italy have developed a new way to test the authenticity of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which holds protected designation of origin (PDO) status under European law, meaning it can only be made in certain areas of Italy and to strict specifications. According to their report, Italians will soon be able to rest easy in the knowledge that their wedge of Parmesan is the real deal (and not, as in one recent case, blended with dodgy wood chip filler).
The researchers' new testing method analyzes cheeses for a certain type of fatty acid, which is only present in dairy products from cows raised on silage—a kind of high-moisture fodder banned by the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium. Yes, that is a real organization.
Section 3.4 of the PDO regulations for the Parmesan demands that cows must be fed "primarily on fodder from the defined geographical area, specified by quantity and quality" and that the "use of silage of any kind is prohibited." Damn straight.
Testing a cross-section of cheeses, the researchers discovered that these fatty acids were "components of bacterial membranes and have been recently detected in milk and in dairy products from cows fed with corn silage."
They picked up on the rogue acids by using the fancy-sounding "quantitative gas chromatography" method, which is basically a way of separating mixtures into their individual compounds and then analysing them.
By looking at the fatty acid content of 304 samples of different protected origin cheeses, including Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, and Fontina from Italy, French Comté, and Gruyère from Switzerland, the researchers found that fatty acids were "absent in all of the cheeses whose Production Specification Rules expressly forbid the use of silages (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Fontina, Comté, and Gruyère)."
Their study concluded that fatty acids were "instead present in variable concentrations (300 to 830 milligrams/kilograms of fat) in all of the samples of Grana Padano cheese (silages admitted)."
Authentic Parmesan-lovers everywhere will be pleased to hear that this testing method can also identify cheese fraudsters: "A mix of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano was also prepared, showing that the method is able to detect the counterfeiting of Parmigiano-Reggiano with other cheeses up to 10 to 20 percent Grana Padano content."
As Chemical and Engineering News reports, Augusta Caligiani, one of the authors of the study, claimed that "cheese malefactors are unlikely to adulterate below the levels of 10 to 20 percent because it would offer no economic advantage."
Speaking to MUNCHIES, Caligiani added that, while her team are not the first to develop methods of proving cheese authenticity, they have found a new way to target fraudsters at the source of the cheese-making process: "The new method permits to verify a specific aspect of the Parmigiano-Reggiano Production Rules: the compliance with the cow-feeding rules that forbid the use of ensiled feed. No other analytical methods are available at the moment to address this specific point."
Caligiani went on to explain that the new method is far simpler and quicker than those devised in the past: "It does not require the construction of a database or statistical models, and it can be easily reproduced in all the main food analysis laboratories because the instrumentation used is easily available."
The obsession with proving the authenticity—as well as the reputation—of homegrown cheese is something of an Italian obsession. In the last few years, Italy's cheese industry has had beef with American food giant Kraft, taken a soap opera to court over dissing Grana Padano, and been seriously pissed off with porn site Pornhub for comparing its so-called "premium" services to Parmigiano-Reggiano. (We can forgive them for getting shirty about that last one).
Let's be honest, though—if you're paying top dollar, you want to know what you're sprinkling over your carbonara is the real deal (although let's not get started on how to make that).