The Small Town Where Beloved Parmesan Cheese Got Its Start

Welcome to Clued In, a column that will give you insight into some of The New York Times Crossword clues and answers.

The word “Parma’‘ has been used in 65 New York Times crossword puzzles. It has been clued in several different ways, including “Toscanini’s birthplace” and “Cheese city.”

Parmigiano Reggiano, a beloved cheese Americans refer to as Parmesan cheese or “parm,” has a solid fan base composed of cheese lovers around the globe. The name of the pungent powerhouse is a nod to where the cheese is authentically and traditionally made, in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna, according to the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. Parma is home to fewer than 200,000 residents and the University of Parma. The culinary city is also known as the birthplace of prosciutto di Parma, and it recently became the first Italian city to be named a UNESCO Creative City for Gastronomy.

Italian Parmigiano Reggiano, which is part of a larger style of cheese called grana, is made from a mix of skim milk and whole milk. Cheese makers add rennet and whey to the mixture and heat it up in a copper vat, an important tool in the process, said Lizzie Roller, the director of merchandising for Murray’s Cheese. Once that process is complete, the cheese is taken out and immersed in a saline solution for almost a month. In the last step of the process, the cheese wheel is stored in a warehouse and aged for at least one year. The longer a wheel matures, the richer its taste and higher its price.

What Americans refer to as parm is arguably not true Parmigiano Reggiano. Kraft Heinz, for example, has been selling “Parmesan cheese” in a plastic bottle for decades. Although the product became a staple for some Americans, the company has received complaints and even faced lawsuits from consumers who argued that the cheese product isn’t made up purely of cheese but rather is mixed with cellulose. In 2021, Kraft Heinz sold its Parmesan cheese product to Lactalis, a French-based dairy company.

Although it’s common for food lovers to think of flavor or experience as a driving force behind the popularization of certain foods, Tia Keenan, a cheese expert and author, pointed out that the popularity of many foods in the United States is determined by logistics. A large part of Parmigiano Reggiano’s popularity in the United States can be attributed to waves of Italian immigrants moving to America. “Parmesan Reggiano has always been in the U.S., as long as you’ve had Italian immigrants here,” Roller said.

The cheese’s large, hard, aged qualities lend themselves to portability and a long shelf life, and therefore travel. Parmigiano Reggiano has been imported in some quantity “since the earliest days of the American colonial project,” Keenan said, referring to the cheese as a “sturdy ambassador.”

Along with maintaining a large global fan base, Parmigiano Reggiano is a financial superstar. The cheese’s entry into the culinary world made banking and capital investment possible in Italy and helped fund the Renaissance, making it quite likely “the first and only” cheese to serve as a scaffold for centuries of cultural and economic growth, Keenan said.

Cheese experts say Parmigiano Reggiano dates to around the 14th century, but it became more regulated in the 1900s. In 1901, the Chamber of Commerce of Reggio Emilia proposed the creation of a trade union among cheese producers and cheese traders in an effort to authenticate the origin of Parmigiano Reggiano that was set to be exported. Now, more than 100 years later, producers belong to the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, a body that governs all things Parmigiano Reggiano. The consortium controls exactly how anything sold as Parmigiano Reggiano is made, Roller said.

The consortium’s role is unwavering: It defends and protects the unique features and origin of the cheese. Dotted inscriptions around Parmigiano Reggiano wheels were introduced in 1964. Since then, all Parmigiano Reggiano wheels for sale are required to include specific marks on the rinds as a sign of approval from the consortium.

“This clue is nice and over the plate, which is what we’d want for such an answer for a Wednesday crossword. And perhaps you, the solver, learned the origin of Parmesan cheese, or the clue just made you hungry altogether.” — Sam Ezersky, digital puzzles editor

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