MILAN - If you’ve been eating kosher Parmesan for the past five years, the chances are it’s not been the real thing. Although in the English-speaking world the term “Parmesan” is often used to refer to generic grated cheese, the real Parmesan – a trademark protected both by Italian law and European Union regulations – specifically refers to Parmigiano-Reggiano, a hard cheese produced in northern Italy according to a centuries-old tradition.
Currently, there is no kosher Parmigiano-Reggiano available. Soon, however, the “king of Italian cheeses” will be able to claim its spot on the tables of observant Jews, as two local producers launch their own kosher lines.
To be recognized as Parmigiano-Reggiano, a cheese must fulfill strict requirements. For instance, the milk must come from cows fed solely on grass or hay. The cheese must age for at least 12 months and be produced only in a few provinces in Italy: “Parmesan” really means “Cheese from Parma,” although the law also allows for producing it in the neighboring provinces of Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna.
In the past, a small family-owned firm called Azienda Agricola Fantacini used to produce kosher Parmigiano-Reggiano in Reggio Emilia, but ceased doing so in 2010. Since then, observant Jews have had to renounce eating Parmigiano-Reggiano and been forced to turn to lesser-quality grated cheese.
Now, however, two Italian producers have announced plans to start producing kosher Parmigiano-Reggiano. The Bertinelli cheese factory announced on its website that its first kosher Parmigiano-Reggiano will be ready at the end of 2015. Caseificio Colla, meanwhile, told Pagine Ebraiche (an Italian Jewish monthly magazine) that its first kosher forms will hit shelves by October. Given the small size of Italy’s Jewish population, Caseificio Colla said its primary targets were the American and Israeli markets.
Nicola Bertinelli, the owner of the Bertinelli cheese factory – which was founded in the mid-1800s and is still family-owned – said that the production of kosher Parmigiano-Reggiano is “a big step for our firm, demonstrating our growing commitment to consumers with particular demands.”
The crucial issue in the production of kosher Parmigiano-Reggiano lies in the rennet – a substance necessary to turn the milk into a hard cheese – which must be of animal origin. Traditional rennet is produced from the enzymes of slaughtered ruminant mammals. Although in modern times vegetarian rennet substitutes have been applied to cheese making, they cannot be used for Parmigiano-Reggiano.
“To make kosher Parmigiano-Reggiano, you need [to take the] rennet from animals that have been slaughtered according to kashrut, because if you use vegetable rennet it’s just not real,” Elena Loewenthal, a Jewish writer and scholar in Turin who has also authored a book on kosher cuisine, tells Haaretz.
Some outside of Italy have criticized the strict regulations that require food producers to follow the tradition in order to use traditional names such as Parmigiano Reggiano and Mozzarella di Bufala Campana. Loewenthal disagrees, noting, “In a way, Italian food regulations mirror the kashrut. Just like in the Jewish law, the strictness of Italian food certifications make people think about what they eat.”
Since Italy’s Jewish population amounts to less than 50,000 individuals and only a small minority of them keeps kosher, there are few kosher slaughterhouses in the country, which makes the production of kosher Parmigiano-Reggiano complex and its market small.
But for Italian Jews, says Loewenthal, the presence of kosher Parmigiano-Reggiano has a deep symbolic meaning. “It’s a sign of assimilation. Since Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the most ubiquitous and well-known Italian cheeses, having it kosher is basically saying that Italian Jews are now free to eat like all other Italians.”