Say Cheese

As National Vegetarian Week draws to a close, I wanted to discuss cheese. In fact, I often want to discuss cheese, but that's not the point.

Many people love cheese. Frenchies, in particular, are fond of cheese, with the highest annual consumption per capita of their beloved fromage. (Interestingly, the silver and bronze medals are held by Iceland and Finland, which I was surprised by. I have eaten cheese in Finland, but it didn't strike me as a terrifically cheesey place at the time. Anyway.)

The cheese in question here, however, actually hails from Italy. It is one of the most popular and well-loved cheeses in Europe, and goes by the name of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Or, to its nearest and dearest, parmesan.

In fact, Parmigiano-Reggiano has PDO status - a 'protected destination of origin'. This means that under EU law, any product described as Parmigiano-Reggiano must be made according to strict and particular guidelines (they even inspect the cheese wheels, it's pretty intense..), and only in specific areas of northern Italy. The rules are different outside the EU, where 'parmesan' as a term is used a lot more loosely and doesn't necessarily only refer to Parmigiano-Reggiano. Extra-EU-peeps, proceed at your peril; Italians may not approve.

As an aside, if you do fancy reading the legislation on the labelling of Parmigiano-Reggiano (wheel dimensions, cheese texture, which cow breeds can be used, what exact colour it is allowed to be etc.), you can do so here. I actually found it quite interesting, but I am very interested in law/the EU/cheese, so the combo was bound to be a success. I appreciate that it may not be so fascinating for everyone.. Moving on.

The point of this post was not simply to wax lyrical about parmesan, much as it seems to have gone that way. In fact, it is to further a campaign by the Vegetarian Society, about parmesan. The campaign is called Say Cheese, and its goal is to raise awareness of one key fact.

Parmesan cheese is not vegetarian.

YUP, I WAS SHOCKED TOO. You see, if you read the 'raw materials' section of the parmesan law, you may have already spotted this. If not, here's a clue: it contains calf rennet. This is an enzyme found in the lining of the fourth stomach of a calf, which stops being produced once their diet goes beyond only milk. The fact that this appears in the ingredients list means that in order to be classed as parmesan, the cheese is required by law to contain calf rennet.

But all is not lost! Once you have got over the surprise (yes, all those 'vegetarian' meals that you were merrily dousing in parmesan were not quite so veggie after all.. guilty), I have a solution for you.

Back in the 60s when most of us hadn't even been considered yet, let alone born (except you, grandparents - holla), the world suddenly became terrified of a rennet shortage. Demand for beef was increasing, meaning that farmers couldn't afford to be taking the rennet from calves any more as they wanted to keep them until they were adults.

This resulted in some clever clogs deciding to use vegetable rennet, microbial rennet and the most commonly used FPC (fermentation-produced chymosin). These methods may sound new-age and weird and "let's just stick to normal cheese, shall we?" but in fact date way back. Supposedly, Homer even suggested in the Iliad that figs were used in this way by the Greeks, so really tradition could be said to favour non-animal rennet.

This is where this nifty find comes in. When I found out about parmesan's non-veggie-suitability, I went on a rampage through the fridge to read much more thoroughly the ingredients list of every single item. My dismay at having to immediately score pesto off my list of yummies, however, was remedied when the ingredients mentioned not parmesan but 'medium-fat hard cheese', followed by a statement of suitability for veggie peeps.

A hunt began for said 'medium-fat hard cheese' in solid, de-pesto-ed form, and to my joy I found it snuggled between two parmesans in the cheese section, with vegetarian emblazoned across it.

This cheese uses only milk, salt and vegetable rennet, and is quite indistinguishable from my formerly adored Parmigiano-Reggiano. A success; I wholeheartedly recommend.

P.S. If you already knew that parmesan wasn't vegetarian, then kudos to you. I only wish I had known sooner.

P.P.S. I tried to make a pun out of rennet and regret, but failed. Pun count below par(mesan). Whew, saved it.

*All photos in this post are mine. If you wish to use any, please ask my permission and credit me!*


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