Untitled - Razza Reggiana
delle vacche rosse
A rare, robust and remarkable cheese
Photos courtesy of Associazione Nazionale Allevatori Bovini di Razza Reggiana
breeds were introduced to the province.
In 1950, there were 200,000 Vacche Rosse in Reggio
Emilia; in 1988 there were 800. Why? Because the Reggiana
produces less milk than other breeds. In addition, they have
to be milked by hand — their udders are too sensitive for
milking machines. And that makes their milk both labor
intensive and expensive.
In the 1990s a few breeders decided to reintroduce the
idea of using red cow milk to make Parmigiano Reggiano
and thus prevent the breed’s extinction. Today there are
3,000 Vacche Rosse in the area.
They’re so prized that each red cow is registered in the
Reggiana Breed Genealogic Book and there is an association
of Vacche Rosse breeders, the Associazione Nazionale
Allevatori Bovini di Razza Reggiana or AnaBoRaRe.
Marco Prandi, president of AnaBoRaRe, has 100 red
cows. In the 1930s, his grandfather won prizes for the
quality of the Vacche Rosse he raised. Marco’s father changed
direction, opting for new breeds that produced more milk
and promised an easier life. But Marco has gone back to
He returned to raising the ancient breed because he
heese connoisseurs know the delights of
Parmigiano Reggiano PDO (protected designation
of origin). Italy’s culinary gift to the world is grated
on pasta, added to soups, used to complete risotto and eaten
on its own.
Now it’s time to meet Parmigiano Reggiano delle
Vacche Rosse — red cow Parmigiano Reggiano — an exalted,
extraordinary and expensive cheese made from the milk of a
breed of cows that nearly went extinct.
All cheese starts with the milk and all milk starts with the
animal. In the case of Parmigiano Reggiano delle Vacche
Rosse, that animal is the Reggiana, the red cows — or Vacche
Rosse — of Reggio Emilia.
Red cows arrived in Italy some 1300 years ago with
barbarian invaders, who are believed to have rustled the
breed when they passed through Russia and Ukraine. The
cows thrived and by the 13th century, when monks first
made Parmigiano Reggiano, they were making it from the
milk of Vacche Rosse.
The red cow is the mother of Parmigiano Reggiano. It was
the only breed in Reggio Emilia — and remained the only
breed for centuries. It was not until the 1900s that other
BY ROY STEVENSON
thought it “important for the patrimony of Italy. It has
allowed a specialized Parmigiano Reggiano to be made only
from Vacche Rosse milk. In the ’90s, only about 200 to 300
wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse were made
each year,” Prandi says. “Today the annual production is
11,000 wheels. Compare that to the total production of
3,000,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano.”
According to Prandi, the Vacche Rosse is an ecological
breed. It eats only fresh and dried grass, which is among the
requirements for attaining Parmigiano Reggiano delle Vacche
Rosse PDO status. On the farm, there’s no need for tractors
and other heavy equipment to maintain the pastures because
the cows are tending to them, and that means less pollution.
In addition the breed is very hardy, robust and resistant to
many diseases so there’s little need for antibiotics. Although
Parmigiano Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse is not certified
organic, it comes from cows that graze on natural pasture and
are not treated with antibiotics or hormones.
The cows produce milk for eight to 10 years, much longer
than the area’s other breeds, which produce milk for three to
five years. These numbers are averages, of course. Prandi had
one cow that produced milk for 18 years!
The cows give birth to one calf a year — about half are
female, half male. An added benefit is that the boys, sold off
for butchering, produce high-quality meat that’s prized in its
what about the cheese?
All Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses are still made the way
monks made them centuries ago. They all start with raw milk
obtained from the evening milking, which is partially
skimmed, and added to the morning milk.
The milk that goes into Parmigiano Reggiano delle Vacche
Rosse comes only from the red cows. Their feed is regulated
— they can eat only fresh grass in summer. This increases the
nutritional value of the milk, adds distinctive favors and
makes the color of the resulting cheese yellower than traditional Parmigiano Reggiano. In winter, the milk — and thus
the cheese — is lighter in color because the cows are eating
dried grass. No more than 10 percent of the cows’ winter feed
can be grown outside the district and nothing they eat can
contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Red cow milk contains more protein than milk from the
breeds used to make traditional Parmigiano Reggiano. In
addition Vacche Rosse milk contains a higher proportion of
calcium, phosphorous, glutamate, amino acids and other
Parmigiano Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse matures more
slowly than traditional because the fat globules in the milk
are bigger than those in milk from other breeds. This prevents
the cheese from losing water as quickly. A 24-month
Parmigiano Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse has the same water
content as a 20-month traditional
Parmigiano Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse
gets its own specific stamp on the top and
the bottom of the wheel. The stamp identifies when the cheese reached 24 months —
the youngest age at which it can be sold —
the producer and the farm where the cows
were raised. Cheese that falls in the 26- to
30-month range is considered the best.
At first blush, it tastes like standard
Parmigiano Reggiano, but as its complex
taste explodes across the palate, it becomes
noticeably different. It has a rich aftertaste,
leaving a more concentrated flavor than traditional Parmigiano Reggiano.
Parmigiano Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse
can be used wherever traditional is used
but given its premium price, this is a cheese
that should be enjoyed as an eating cheese.
Treat it like a vintage red wine and let it sit for an hour
before serving. The traditional serving method is to break
flakes off the cheese with a wedge-shaped knife designed for
this purpose. Then drizzle the cheese with a few drops of the
finest aged Balsamico di Reggio Emilia or di Modena you can
afford. Or drizzle it with a bit of Saba. Grape must reduction
is aged to make balsamic vinegar; when the initial reduction
undergoes a further reduction, it’s called Saba.
Parmigiano Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse is delicious
accompanied by artisanal breads, fruits and nuts — especially
heirloom tomatoes, apples, pears, figs, walnuts and hazelnuts. Chutney is a less traditional but equally palate-pleasing
accompaniment. And the cheese reaches ethereal heights
when flaked atop thinly sliced beef carpaccio and drizzled
with extra virgin olive oil.
In the beverage area, it pairs especially well with high tannic Italian wines such as Chianti Classico Riserva, Sangiovese,
Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino and Barbaresco. Parmigiano
Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse is a special cheese and deserves a
great wine, so don’t skimp on the bottle. CC