Rest in Peace, Kosher Parmigiano

Italian Family-Owned Business Closed After Retirement

Wheels of Destruction: During an earthquake in Italy earlier this year, wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano came tumbling to the ground of warehouses where they were maturing.
Getty Images
Wheels of Destruction: During an earthquake in Italy earlier this year, wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano came tumbling to the ground of warehouses where they were maturing.

By Rossella Tercatin

Published September 08, 2012, issue of September 14, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On May 20, a devastating earthquake hit Emilia-Romagna, a region in northern Italy. More than 600,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano fell from shelves where they were aging and ended up broken and humiliated on the floor. Since then, consumers, nonprofit organizations and businesses have made an extraordinary effort to ensure that the damaged wheels don’t go to waste and that producers and dairy farmers don’t go out of business. It’s as if the entire region is chipping in to keep alive the centuries-old process of making what the Italians call il re dei formaggi — the king of cheeses.

Today you can’t find a single piece of kosher Parmigiano-Reggiano anywhere in the world — but it’s not because of the earthquake.

The last kosher Parmigiano operation ended several years ago in Reggio Emilio, a small town between Parma and Bologna. “My family started the business at the beginning of last century,” Irma Fanticini, 89, told me recently. “My son Piero represents the third generation of professional cheese makers. He is named after his grandfather, who started the factory in 1907. Even before this, his family had been producing homemade cheese for centuries.”

Fanticini explained: “We decided to make Parmigiano for Jews. Once in a while a rabbi came with a special rennet, and he controlled everything.” But when Irma’s son retired a couple of years ago, the Fanticinis sold their cheese factory, and the new owners stopped making kosher Parmigiano.

You may have seen kosher parmesan in the supermarket, so let me clarify. Parmigiano Reggiano should not be mistaken for its distantly related cousin, the generic “parmesan” — and certainly not for “parm” (whatever that is). For Parmigiano to be authentic, it must carry a Protected Designation of Origin certification. The certification, like the one used to protect Champagne, guarantees that the cheese is produced exclusively in the region of northern Italy where it was first developed. Here, cows are fed on locally grown hay, which infuses the milk with a unique flavor. And cheese makers continue to use the same methods to make and age the cheese as their forbears have for centuries.

So why haven’t others followed in the Fantacinis’ footsteps?

The cheese poses one of the more complicated challenges in the kosher culinary canon. In order to get the PDO certificate, Parmigiano must be produced using milk and calf rennet (stomach enzymes) — mixing milk and meat, or so it would seem. However, “the fact that the rennet derives from the stomach of an animal does not make it meat, because in the process of producing it, it becomes something different,” explained Elia Richetti, president of Assemblea Rabbinica Italiana, the Council of Italian Rabbis. So, while it’s not mixing milk and meat, the rennet must come from the stomach of a kosher slaughtered calf.

The people of Emilia Romagna have been making Parmigiano since the Middle Ages and are understandably protective of their secrets and ingredients. It is not easy to persuade these cheese makers, who are sons and grandsons of cheese makers, to accept as an ingredient an enzyme that’s produced by a rabbi, and whose quality they cannot really control.

So do Italian food lovers who keep kosher have to give up the king of cheeses, or, even worse, prepare themselves to settle for a cheap imitation? Per carità!

Parmigiano has a very close, and almost equally tasty, relative: Grana Padano. The only differences are less-strict regulations on what the cattle can eat and a shorter maturation time, creating a slightly moister cheese.

For the past 15 years, kosher-keeping Italians and cheese aficionados have feasted on a kosher version of this cheese, thanks to Piacenza’s Gran Duca Colla. The factory was founded by Giuseppe Colla in 1921 and continues to ensure that a kosher run is completed once a month.

“I go to the cheese factory once a month with kosher calf rennet…Nothing changes in the kosher production other than the rennet used,” explained Rabbi Shalom Elmaleh, who certifies the cheese kosher.

After the rennet is mixed in and the cheese formed, the wheels are placed, like Parmigiano, on a shelf to mature. As they age, they build a delicious and robust flavor to be enjoyed with bread or sprinkled over pasta.

Since Grana Padano is the best substitute for kosher Parmigiano, we hope these wheels don’t end up on the floor.

Rossella Tercatin is a reporter for Pagine Ebraiche, the magazine of Italian Jewry.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv?
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.