Keepin’ it Wheel

Check that off the bucket list – cracking open a 90lb 2-year old wheel of heavenly Parmigiano Reggiano.

Thanks to the Specialty Team (especially Marketing Director Luke Cavener) at Whole Foods in Boise for making a foodie dream I didn’t even realize I had come true this weekend! The culinary gods were smiling when I got the early-morning call about participating in WFM’s annual Keepin’ It Wheel Annual Parmigiano Reggiano Crack. Heck – there’s even a T-shirt to commemorate the day.

Meet Cheesemonger Scottie (aka guy with quite possibly the coolest job ever.) I’ve met Scottie before when pondering how to put together the best charcuterie and cheese plate ever. Needless to say, there are many ways to accomplish that – and he’s more than happy to guide you to the best goat, sheep or cow’s milk cheese for the occasion. He was my cheese consigliere for the afternoon. See those tools atop the wheel? Those are the only things used to break this bad boy apart. Fittingly, the pointiest one is called a stiletto.

Like with their wine, Italians take their cheese seriously. Very seriously. Learning about the lineage and certification of true Parmigiano Reggiano reminded me of getting schooled on Chianti & Chianti Classico. It’s a protected designation of origin and under Italian law, only cheese produced in the provinces of  Parma, Reggio Emilia, and parts of Bologna, Modena, and Mantova can carry the mark of authenticity and be known as Parmigiano Reggiano. The markings on the side detail where it came from (the caseficio or cheese house) and when it was ‘born’ so to speak. This one had been waiting for its moment for two years. Per the WFM missive on these wheels, “the pin dots guarantee that the cheese was made under regulation of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, conforming to its stringent standards of quality.”

(By the way, you may get high-fived to the face if you call this ‘shaker can Parmesan’. Scottie made that clear. The disdain, not the threat of violence.)  While Whole Foods made this a big day of celebration across the country – with dozens (hundreds?) of people getting a crack at cracking the wheel, it’s a common occurrence for the cheesmongers. Scottie said Whole Foods is the biggest global importer of these wheels, and he cracks one a week. He’s been doing this for ten years. Yeah, 520 wheels at least.

This would be my one and only opportunity to use the tools and techniques relied on for 900 years. Why argue with history (or Italians)?  As the photos below show, you start by scoring the rind with the tool with the hooked end. After that, the stiletto comes into play as you plunge it into the scored lines at several key points. It only takes a few insertions and maneuvering of the blade for the crack. And the aroma that comes out is amazing.
(Here’s video of Scottie making it look easy)Cracking the wheel once, twice, and then in half and smaller chunks and wedges, instead of straight cutting it from the start, means that you preserve those craggily crystal-like edges and texture. The longer the cheese ages, the more of that crystal crunch there is. And I won’t be biting into those crystal bits anytime soon without remembering my turn at the wheel.

That’s the thing about the hands-on culinary experience. It brings an appreciation for the heritage and craft behind the food that you may have taken for granted before. It remains with you after the taste of savoring the food has passed.

Thanks to Scottie for making me look like I knew what I was doing, and for sharing his favorite way to serve the delicious Parmigiano Reggiano  - a nice wedge with honey drizzled over it, rustic and ready for guests to dig into.


- The Parm Princess (moniker courtesy Michael Gilbert :)

(Photos of the cracking in action courtesy Whole Foods Market Boise)