1. The Middle Ages: origins
The great works of land reclamation carried out in Emilia first by the Monasteries and then by municipalities and feudal landowners made available large tracts of land which lent themselves to important agricultural developments.
In the XIII century in Parma and Reggio there was already present quite an advanced agricultural system which required ever larger types of cattle both for the cultivation of the land and its fertilisation. Originally cattle herds were left to graze on uncultivated land but this meant losing the manure and so it was decided to give areas fenced in by hedges over to meadowland. These fields were near the cow byres and in this way all the manure was recuperated. Good meadowland, however, required abundance of water and thus the largest areas of grassland were formed in areas where springs were plentiful; in Parma to the north of the city in the area of Fontanellato-Fontevivo, while in Reggio the land richest in water was between Montecchio and Campegine (the latter was subject to Parma at the time).
In the XIII century the most dynamic and technically advanced farming units were certainly ecclesiastical, the grancie or farms depending on monasteries. We must also remember that, unlike other Emilian cities, in Parma there was the salt necessary for the production of cheese. The salt came from the salt reserves in Salsomaggiore.
Thus it comes as no surprise to find that already by the second half of the century cheese trading is documented in Parma. As everything necessary for the production of large cheeses from cow’s milk was present, in 1272 we find indications about the sale of not matured cheese (recentis) which was sold by pesi, where I peso equals 8,2 kg.
There were 4 principal monasteries present between Parma and Reggio, two Benedictine (St.John in Parma and St.Prospero in Reggio) and two Cistercian (St.Martino of Valserena and Fontevivo both in the Parma area).
The Monastery of St.John, founded in 981, was one of the most important in the river Po valley. It possessed over 4.000 biolche of land mostly reclaimed and given over to cultivation. The Monastery still exists and from the remaining land every year they produce red wine and apples. In the Middle Ages it possessed farms both to the north of Parma and north-east in the area of the Reggiano. In particular we can see from documentation that in 1352 the Monastery had in Gainago 100 biolche of meadowland sufficient to graze a large herd of cattle. Unfortunately we have no documentary evidence to show the presence of a cheese factory in the area.
The Monastery of St. Prospero
in Reggio was not as rich as that of St. John but had, since the XII century possessed an important experimental farm
(azienda zootecnica), il castrum of Gualtirolo near Campegine.
The Abbey of Fontevivo founded in 1142 by the Cistercians, should have had an important agricultural destiny as it owned 8500 biolche of land, which were, however, still to be reclaimed as they were marshlands. In fact, the donation of the land to the Abbey was so that the monks, already famous agricultural entrepreneurs, would take over responsibility for reclamation of this inhospitable and unhealthy area. Thus the Prior and his 12 monks began work; a century later it was still in progress but 3 grancie had been created which were true agricultural settlements dependant on the Abbey itself. In 1298, on the suggestion of Cardinal Bianchi from Parma, the Cistercians founded another Monastery not far from the city: the Abbey of St. Martin of the Bocci ( or ‘brambles’, just to illustrate how wild the surrounding land was at the time) which at the beginning of the XIV century was endowed with almost 4000 biolche of land. With these amounts of land available it is easy to see just how essential the role of such Abbeys was in terms of the development of the area of Parma and Reggio.
Given this general picture, and wishing to enter into the specifics of cheese production, it must be remembered that from the documentation of certain Monsteries, cheese production was undertaken already in the XII century
; such cheese was not necessarily Parmigiano-Reggiano. We must, in fact, remember that sheep breeding was also flourishing in this area, both in the plain and in the hills, and that wool, meat and cheese were produced.
In order to identify the production of Parmigiano with certainty, a number of pieces of information are necessary, such as, for example, the weight of the cheese wheel, the quantity of milk used or the number of cows necessary to produce one form of cheese. Herd size is an essential factor and, given the high value of cows, it is clear that only the largest farms of the time could allow themselves a sufficiently consistent herd to produce large forms of cheese. Furthermore, the technique of Parmigiano cheese production, which uses only a partial creaming off of milk, meant that producers had to have reached a high level of technical expertise. All of these characteristics could be found in the great Abbey farms.
Going through documents we have found a parchment from 1349 from the Abbey of St. Martin which mentions cheese production from two herds, one of 49 and the other of 32 cows. Later documents mention the oldest dependent farm or grancia of the Monastery in which Parmigiano was produced, that of Frassinara from 1305 on.
Thus, it would appear that the first producers were the Parma Cistercians, but we must not forget the castrum of Gualtirolo, pride of the Benedictines from St.Prospero in Reggio.
In 1306 thanks to the efforts of the Abbot Albertino Levalossio, agricultural production was ‘reborn’ and large quantities of cheese were carried into town on the backs of donkeys and placed in the Abbey’s city storehouses. So the production was practically simultaneous with that of the Cistercian cousins from Parma. In this way it becomes very difficult to assign responsibility for the cheese to either type of monk and to either city, Parma or Reggio. We know for certain that the monks were “Godfathers” to the cheese and that the development of technology was a lengthy affair which proceeded hand in hand with the increasing wealth of the farms. In other words, Medieval Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese was much smaller than today’s cheese. In the XV century a form weighed about 13 kg even though the weight oscillated according to how much milk was available from the herd. The larger forms were the most highly prized and expensive.
As the first certain documentation goes back to the beginning of the XIV century it is reasonable to suppose that the necessary technology was defined in the preceding decades, which takes us to the end of the XIII century, as would be confirmed by the above mentioned parchment. We must also remember that in the same year as the parchment sanctioned the contract for cheese production, Boccaccio concluded his Decameron
citing “Grated Parmigiano
” which could be from either the Cistercians or the Benedictines. For certain, Parma was the most important marketing centre for the product which, given its size, long conservation and quality we can define as having been “born to travel”, and, in fact, we find it in Bologna in 1351 and in 1371 in Bra.
In 1389 we have first hand news of exportation of the cheese outside Italy: the Pisans in fact loaded it onto their ships bound for France, Spain and North Africa.
To round off this picture let us remember the merchant Sercambi from Lucca, follower of Boccaccio, who in 1399 wrote a novella set in Parma in a property called “Bovara” where two young men took their cows to graze every day. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that this is the first time (as far as we know) that we have news of a sexual encounter to be paid for in cheese.
Scurrilous tales were at the time a speciality of the Tuscan area, what is important for us here in Parma is that already at the time the city was recognised as being a "city of cheese", an image which would last up to the present day.