Parmesan cheese: A Thousand-Year Journey, from Its Origins to the Present Day

At the heart of Italian gastronomy stands a timeless treasure that has defied the passage of centuries, enchanting the palates of many generations: Parmesan cheese.

Parmesan cheese is one of the most widespread and celebrated foods in the world: produced with cow’s milk in the areas of Reggio Emilia, Modena, Parma, and Bologna, it is ranked first in the list of the 20 best cheeses in the world, according to Taste Atlas.

This extraordinary and unique cheese is much more than a simple culinary product; it represents an authentic testament to a thousand-year-old tradition that has its roots in an unexpected place: the sacred abbeys of Cistercian and Benedictine monks.

The birth of Parmesan cheese

What many do not know is that Parmesan Cheese is one of the oldest cheeses in the rich Italian tradition, with its roots in the ingenuity of Benedictine and Cistercian monks in the area between Parma and Reggio Emilia.

The monks’ aim was to reduce waste and create a cheese with exceptional durability, destined to become an essential food for travelers and merchants.

In an era when cheeses had a limited shelf life, the monks, with their visionary reclamation work, managed to intensify farming, increasing milk production.

This great abundance of milk led to deep reflections among the monks, pushing them to maximize the use of this precious resource.

Thus, the idea of producing a cheese was born, which not only demonstrated an extraordinary ability to be preserved over time but also became a valuable ally in times of famine.

An emblem of wisdom, Parmesan Cheese is the result of a wise combination of techniques and ingredients; milk from cows of the prestigious Red Reggiana breed, enriched with salt from the Salsomaggiore salt pans.

The First Testimony of Parmesan Cheese

The first written record of the existence of Parmesan Cheese dates back to April 25, 1254, the date of a notarial deed drawn up by the notary Guglielmo Vegio, preserved in the State Archives of Genoa.

A document clearly mentions the words “casei paramensis” and “caseum paramensis“.

It was the sale of a house in the center of Genoa, sold by the widow Giovanna Mureti Mallone to the monastery of San Pietro di Prà, for a sum of 50 lire of Genoese denari and a life annuity of 6 mines of wheat and a half quintal of “casei paramensis”, or Parmesan cheese.

The notarial deed specified that the Parmesan Cheese  had to be delivered to the widow, implicitly indicating a preference for this cheese over others, probably due to its long shelf life and extraordinary nutritional value.

This also informs us that as early as the 13th century, the fame of Parmesan cheese had spread and consolidated, allowing it to reach other important destinations in Italy and the Mediterranean through the port of Genoa.

A creation, with its hard, grainy paste and imposing shapes, still loved by everyone today, is a perfect example of tradition, testifying to the craftsmanship handed down over time.

Parmesan Cheese in the Renaissance

Parmesan Cheese

From its inception, Parmesan Cheese garnered immense acclaim. In 1351, the illustrious author Giovanni Boccaccio immortalized the cheese in his literary masterpiece, the Decameron.

He described a fantastical land of Bengodi, where a mountain of grated Parmigiano Reggiano stood tall, nourishing its inhabitants with delectable macaroni and ravioli. This vivid portrayal further cemented the cheese’s reputation as a symbol of abundance and culinary excellence.

The Renaissance era ushered in a period of prosperity and cultural vibrancy, propelling Parmigiano Reggiano to even greater heights. The region’s economic boom fueled the expansion of the Parmesan Cheese Consortium, extending its reach to the province of Modena. These cheesemaking hubs became economic, productive, and social pillars of the community.

As the Emilia-Romagna region flourished, Parmesan Cheese established itself as a gastronomic gem, gaining prominence not only within Italy but also across Europe.

Its popularity soared, with cheese wheels reaching an impressive 18 kilograms in weight.

To safeguard this culinary treasure from imitations, Duke Ranuccio I Farnese of Parma issued an official decree on August 7, 1612.

This landmark decision laid the foundation for the modern Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) certification, meticulously defining the criteria for producing authentic Parmesan Cheese.

The decree specified the cheese’s geographical origins, including the milk’s provenance, thus safeguarding its authenticity and ensuring the perpetuation of this culinary legacy.

Parmesan cheese today

Parmesan Cheese

Parmesan Cheese today retains a remarkable essence that mirrors its original conception by ingenious monks.

Its production still employs the same ingredients, takes place in the same regions, and adheres to the same meticulous procedures.

Over time, particularly in the latter part of the 20th century, significant advancements have been introduced into the aging processes, such as the adoption of automated industrial machinery.

However, these modifications have not compromised the authenticity and fundamental tradition of these exquisite cheese wheels.

Much like wine, Parmesan is intrinsically linked to its terroir, a limited 10,000-square-kilometer region encompassing the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Mantua.

This area is characterized by a favorable microclimate and a unique geological composition of the land where the essential forages for the cows’ diet are cultivated, these factors being crucial for the distinctiveness and characterization of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Beyond salt, rennet, and milk, a critically important ingredient is aging, which imparts unique organoleptic properties to the cheese.

Aging also represents a significant biodiversity factor: the minimum duration is 12 months, but Parmigiano Reggiano DOP, which fully expresses its typical characteristics around 24 months, can age up to 36, 48, 60 months, and beyond.

To safeguard its integrity, in the 1990s, Parmigiano Reggiano was officially recognized as a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), definitively establishing its uniqueness.

This is a story of success, but it is also a testament to how, in most cases, creating something exceptional requires just an idea, a few essential ingredients, and the courage to preserve its nature and tradition.


Parmesan Cheese stands as an authentic gastronomic treasure with a millennia-old history, a testament to a tradition rooted in the abbeys of Cistercian and Benedictine monks.

Originating from the region between Parma and Reggio Emilia, this cheese has continued to delight palates for over a thousand years, earning its place at the top of the list of the 20 best cheeses in the world.

Its captivating story has traversed the ages, garnering renown as early as the Renaissance and enduring to this day.

Despite continuous innovations in the food industry, Parmesan Cheese maintains its authenticity, remaining firmly anchored to its terroir and rich tradition.

With production that employs the same ingredients and artisanal processes, this cheese represents a unique gastronomic excellence, officially recognized with the PDO designation. Its unwavering quality over time bears witness to the respect for ancient production practices and the dedication to crafting an extraordinary product.

Parmesan Cheese’s enduring legacy is a testament to the power of tradition, the pursuit of excellence, and the unwavering commitment to preserving a culinary masterpiece that has captivated the world for generations.

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 875946