Parmesan cheese has a rich history going all the way back to the Middle Ages. The average America means Parmigiano Reggiano when they talk about Parmesan cheese, but they probably aren’t getting the real thing. (More on that later.)
The first record of Parmigiano-Reggiano is from 1254. Legend has it, that around 900 years ago, Benedictine monks, living in the Parma-Reggio region of Italy, created this cheese when they needed to find a way to extend the shelf-life of the large quantity of milk they were producing. During the 1300s and 1400s, these monks had a monopoly on parmesan cheese and would export it to different regions of Italy. As the cheese became more popular, it spread to the rest of Europe.
This popularity meant that Parmigiano-Reggiano imitators popped up all over the place, so Italy issued a decree that placed exclusive control over the production and sale of this cheese in the hands of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese Conzorzio. In 1955, the official name of authentic “parmesan” cheese became Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Eventually, the European Union would get involved to protect authentic parmesan cheese and decided that Parmigiano-Reggiano should be a protected designation of origin. An EU court ruled that only cheese produced in the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia as well as very limited areas in surrounding provinces are legally allowed to be called “parmesan.” This also ensures that all parmesan sold in the European Union is made using traditional methods and entirely manufactured in the Parma-Reggio area.
Unfortunately for Italian cheese loving Americans, the European designation does not extend to cheeses sold here. Anyone can call their cheese parmesan, which is how we can get green cans of grated “parmesan” cheese that cannot legally be sold in Italy under that name. In the United States, if you want to buy the real thing, you should purchase Parmigiano-Reggiano. All those cheeses labeled simply “parmesan” are imitators that wouldn’t be up to snuff in Italy.