Breaking it Down: 80 Pounds of Parmesan
Did you ever waltz by a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano in a cheese or Italian goods shop and wander how they'd cut that huge, eighty pound wheel into tiny little chunks so you could take it home and grate it? As far as you knew, the FDA didn't allow chain saws in food establishments. Or maybe you never even realized Parm was such a sizable wheel since you bought it in small pieces. It was like that for me for a long while- kind of like the tuna fish equation. If you never saw the original fish's glorious hundred or so pounds, you'd never guess that what fit into that itty bitty canned disc came from a finned animal that could knock you, and your lifeboat, over in the water. Well, my friends, someone's got to break down this huge beauty. It's done with daggers. The Sunday before last I co-taught the Ultimate Pairing class with Juliana Uruburu from Oakland's Pasta Shop at the Cheese School's Three Day Intensive course. When I heard that if I arrived a little early, I could witness the famed Parm break-down, I hoped on Bart as quickly as I could and stationed myself in front of that huge wheel of cheese above. Though I worked in cheese shops before, I had never been around on the day that The Wheel was broken down- something I sorely regretted.
To soothe my regrets and to satisfy our Parm curiosities, here is a step-by-step photo break-down of Parmigiano Reggiano, being broken down by Juliana and the Three-Day Cheese Intensive Student Crew. Please, any cheesemongers who do this every month, every week, every Tuesday, feel free to comment any hints of the trade in the comment section! We'd love to learn more about your big wheel skills. Step 1: Score. Using that cheese dagger shown above, score a straight line all around the center of the wheel. This cheese belt will help to guide you as you dig in.
Keep in mind: As shown by Juliana, use your whole body when you dig in with the daggers and break down any wheel of cheese. Cheesemongers can easily injure themselves if they only really on their hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders to provide the muscle. Breaking down a big wheel of cheese should be a whole body work-out.
Step 2: The first attack. You go in first with the thinnest, longest dagger blade (in case you're wondering whether Juliana carries her own blades wrapped in linen around with her, she does. Don't mess with this woman) to create the initial fracture. Wiggle it around a little.
Step 3: Keeping the first blade in, reference where you earlier to scored to decide where to put the next knife. Juliana likes the next blade inserted to be shorter and wider. Not sure how other cheesemongers prefer their next hit.
Step 4: Dig in. Insert that blade, and push it down all the way. More wiggling is encouraged. After you wedge the dagger in, push the handle away from you so the blade is helping to form a bigger crevice in the Parm.
Step 6: Drag: Now get in there and round the edge. Pull that third dagger towards you and the bottom of the wheel that's resting on the table. Put your knees into it! Sometimes cheesemongers use much more than just three blades.
Step 7: Flip that wheel over and repeat. Dagger the other side and score again if need be. The point is to wedge a crevice into the cheese that will eventually part the cheese in two. Step 8: Failed to get a pic of this (sorry guys), but after both the top and bottoms are sufficiently daggered as shown, above, pull the wheel to the edge of the table and repeat Step 6 on the side of the cheese until you reach the very bottom of the wheel that rests on the table. By this point, you've formed a crevice on that extends throughout the entire cheese. Now you have a wedge that… breaks the wheel in two!
A little advice: make friends with your local cheesemonger and ask to be there when they cut their next wheel of Parm. Some do it away from the main cheesemongering area, but many shops like to do it in front of customers so they can appreciate the glory. If your shop does it publicly, make sure to pay a visit one day when they're daggering so you can buy a chunk fresh from the wheel. It's a life changing sensory experience.