The stainless-steel mold gives the cheese its disc shape, about ten inches thick and two feet in diameter. But the mold serves another increasingly important function, as an anticounterfeiting measure. The molds are specially produced by the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano, an independent and self-regulating industry group funded by fees levied on cheese producers. Carefully tracked and numbered, molds are supplied only to licensed and inspected dairies, and each is lined with Braille-like needles that crate a pinpoint pattern instantly recognizable to foodies, spelling out the name of the cheese over and over again in a pattern forever imprinted on its rind. A similar raised-pin mold made of plastic is slipped between the steel and the cheese to permanently number the rind of every lot so that any wheel can be traced back to a particular dairy and day of origin. Like a tattoo, these numbers and the words Parmigiano-Reggiano become part of the skin. Later in its life, because counterfeiting the King of Cheeses has become a global pastime, this will be augmented with security holograms...
One night, friends came to town and invited Alice out to dinner at celebrity chef Mario Batali's vaunted flagship Italian eatery, Babbo. As Alice told me this story, at one point during their meal, the waiter displayed a grater and a large wedge of cheese with great flourish, asking her if she wanted Parmigiano-Reggiano on her pasta. She did not say yes. She did not say no. Instead Alice looked at the cheese and asked, "Are you sure that's Parmigiano-Reggiano?"
Her replied with certainty, "Yes."
She then asked to see the cheese. The waiter panicked, mumbled some excuse, and fled into the kitchen. He returned a few minutes later with a different and much smaller chunk of cheese, which he handed over for examination. The new speck was old, dry, and long past its useful shelf-life, but it was real Parmigiano-Reggiano, evidenced by the pin-dot pattern.
"The first one was Grana Padano," she explained. "I could clearly read the rind. They must have gone searching through all the drawers in the kitchen in a panic until they found this forgotten crumb of Parmigiano-Reggiano." Alice Fixx was the wrong person to try this kind of bait and switch on, but she is the exception, and I wonder how many other expense-account diners swallowed a cheaper substitute. This occurred at one of the most famous and expensive Italian eateries in the country. What do you think happens at other restaurants?
Larry Olmsted (Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It)