Is it Parmesan or Parmigiano?

recipebob's picture

I must admit, we take the cooking and food vocabulary that we use and hear every day for granted. At least, that's the case for me. And so it is for Parmesan as in Parmesan Cheese.

I was playing around with a recipe the other day that called for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. And I had to pause with a brief pondering question "what's the difference between Parmesan and Parmigiano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese"?

It occured to me that I've been buying and using these cheeses for years and I've never stopped to understand the difference. In fact, I've probably been mistaken in my assumption that these are just different names for the same cheese.

Well, to some extent, that may be true, but it's a bit more complicated than that as I've come to learn.

OK, some of you (maybe many of you) are probably saying at this point, this one's pretty obvious. Of course, Parmesan is simply the French version of Parmigiano which is Italian. So are these just the French and Italian language equivalents for the same cheese? Not so fast.

Regions of Italy where Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is produced

Offically, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is named after the areas in Italy where it's produced, Parma, Regio Emilia, Bolgona and Mantova.

Under Italian law, only cheese produced in these provinces may be labeled "Parmigiano-Reggiano. European law classifies the name as a protected designation of origin.

Italy takes this product quite seriously, and the Parmigiano-Reggiano name is trademarked.Map of region in Italy where Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is produced

Exclusive legal control is exercised over all production and sales of the cheese by the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio (consortium). Each wheel of cheese must meet strict criteria each early in the aging process to merit the official seal and be placed in storage for aging.

Parmesan is the French language name for Parmigiano-Reggiano. Parmesan has also become the generic name for all cheeses that imitate Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Certainly, there are many wonderful and respectable Parmesan versions of this cheese.

But if you want the absolute authentic real deal, you're going to have to find an authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese with an official seal.

Which brings me to my minor quandry and why I started thinking about all of this in the first place.

If Parmesan is the French language name for the cheese, then why do Italian restaurants (albeit in America) name the dish on their menu "Eggplant Parmesan"? Why not the more authentic "Eggplant Parmigiano-Reggiano". Perhaps the longer name doesn't roll off the tongue easily enough.

Or maybe there have been some disputes about calling the dish by the authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano name when in fact, a less authentic Parmesan cheese is often used.

Or maybe it's just one of those Americanized labels and we just wouldn't know what you're talking about if you don't call it Parmesan.

By the way, here's the Grilled Lamb Chops with Mustard Glaze that got me going on this Parmigiano-Reggiano thing. I hope we don't get in any trouble with the Parmigiano police ... we really did use the real deal Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, I promise!

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