BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Matteo Panini, President of HOMBRE, one of the finest producers of Parmesan, the king of Italian cheeses, and one of the best foods to accompany champagne.
If champagne and cheese is an increasingly popular pairing, champagne and parmesan is its apotheosis, where the salinity and intensity of parmesan are glorified by the freshness and minerality of champagne.
HOMBRE was founded in the early 1980s out of the passion for the land of Matteo’s father, Umberto Panini, a man who made his fortune in the picture card business, making PANINI the world’s largest publisher.Its farm was a pioneer in organic farming in Italy, and the very first to produce organic Parmesan in 1996 and today Bio HOMBRE is considered among the best existing Parmesan.
Unsurprisingly, a prominent Champagne House, DE VENOGE, sought to sublimate the incredible cheese and wine pairing through a partnership with HOMBRE, consolidating this French-Italian alliance for taste.
Matteo, a man with a big smile and great passion for his work, calls it “a perfect match”. We couldn’t agree more.
Read on to discover the secrets that make Bio HOMBRE so good, and make sure you have some with you the next time you open a bottle of your favorite champagne: you will touch the sky with a finger, we guarantee you that.
What is the origin of the collaboration with the Champagne House DE VENOGE?
We have always undertaken initiatives to explain the values behind our products. In this case, we associate ourselves with worlds different from ours and therefore prefer to partner with wine rather than with food.
I am a cheese producer and not a food and wine pairing specialist; because of this, I am guided by producers of great wines.
At the same time, DE VENOGE was looking to partner with a flagship product in Italy and with a producer who valorizes its territory.
It was therefore very important for them that at HOMBRE we feed our animals only with our products from our own land without external supplies, working in a “closed supply chain” within the territory of Modena.
It was very interesting to associate an agricultural product like Parmesan with an elitist agricultural product like champagne for a perfect match.
As explained by Gilles de la Bassetière, President of DE VENOGE, the minerality of champagne highlights the tyrosine crystals of Parmesan; an amino acid that develops during aging and that participates in the distinctive taste of our cheese.
Tell us about your values and your way of working in a closed supply chain.
Our values are those of quality, taste and consistency, the closed supply chain allows us to control all the factors that affect the quality and consistency of the product.
The starting point for excellent Parmesan is its raw material, the milk. And to obtain the best milk possible, with excellent organoleptic qualities and high protein content, the quality of the cattle is very essential.
We have conducted genetic plans to improve the dairy and morphological characteristics of our animals, and today, we use two breeds of cows.
In addition to the more common Holstein Friesian cow, which makes up 70% of the cattle, we have recently added the Fleckvieh breed, which improves the organoleptic qualities of our milk.
But the care and welfare of the animals are essential, starting from birth. This is why the calves, which absorb everything from their environment, must be born at our farm and grown in our closed supply chain.
They are raised in micro stalls of 4-5 animals, all born in the same week, to avoid having larger and dominant animals that could stress them.
After 45-60 days they move to outdoors stalls. The 30-hectare summer grazing area is divided into three: calves, oxen, and cows.
For the winter, we have single bunks for the cows producing milk, with air thermoregulation systems.
But the type of fodder makes a big difference too. The daily feed we give our animals consists of a mix of our organic crops, which includes alfalfa, sorghum, oats, and barley.
To produce 12 wheels (of 36kg) of Bio HOMBRE Parmesan a day, strictly by hand, we need 310 hectares of land, 500 cows, and 15 employees. By working this way, we valorize and protect our territory.
You were the first to produce organic Parmesan. Why this choice?
In 1992 we were pioneers in organic farming in Italy. For my father, the founder of the company, it was clear that being surrounded by the large Parmesan cooperatives that produce 40-50 wheels of cheese a day compared to a small company like ours that makes only 12, being an ordinary producer would have been difficult.
My father also wanted to make a contribution to the sector by introducing some innovation. At the beginning of the 90s, these two premises translated into the choice of organic agriculture.
Having the right soil ready, the problem was not having organic cows but how to feed them because in Italy there were no organic fodders.
So first of all, in 1992, we put our land under the organic regulation to produce organic feed, and in 1996, we were the first to produce Parmesan from organic farming from a closed and certified supply chain.
Furthermore, by not using antibiotics on our animals, we must work on prevention with probiotic systems, and when necessary, we treat animals only with homeopathic veterinary products.
What differentiates the taste of Bio HOMBRE from other Parmesan?
There are 346 producers in the Parmigiano Reggiano consortium. We all work in the same way according to the production guidelines, resulting in Parmesan wheels of similar weight, size, and color.
However, we obtain 346 different tastes, which depend on so many variables, ranging from the territory, to the type of cows, food, and processing, which are always within the guidelines set by the consortium.
Our Parmesan is less dry than a standard one and retains a creamy and buttery taste.
It is as a result of the fact that we use a milk, strictly ours, with a ratio between fat and casein (the protein of the milk) a little higher, because of the breeds of cows that we use and their diet, and the aging of the parmesan for 20-22 months, the ideal time in our opinion to preserve the aromas better.
The product we obtain is unique in its kind, with a protein content of 35%, 25% fat, and a high nutritional value with the best possible combination of natural amino acids, relatively light and easy to digest.
In Champagne the Cellar Master is the true architect of the taste and style of a champagne, combining different wines. What is the role of the dairyman in the construction of the taste and style of Bio HOMBRE?
The Parmesan production guidelines only allow using fresh milk.
So every morning I have to give my dairyman the best milk possible, with certain characteristics.
He must then be able to make the best possible cheese with the milk he receives, playing on a number of variables, based on the fact that milk, coming from a live animal, is a live product.
In this way, the dairyman magnifies our product. Despite being a production process similar to all Parmesan makers, there is always that small element of magic that every dairyman uses to make his Parmesan unique.
If champagne sees the addition of sugar before shipping to soften its acidity, Parmesan sees the addition of salt before curing. Why?
Salt is the only element added to milk for two reasons: to add flavor and taste to cheese, and to help preserve the product naturally.
But as opposed to champagne where sugar is added during the disgorgement, we cannot open the Parmesan wheel to add salt to it.
For this, we put it in the milk, and indirectly during the salting in brine tanks, where we dip the wheels for 18 days.
Then the cheese is placed in our aging store where it will release the water that it has absorbed while the mineral particles of salt will remain in the cheese.
We use sea salt obtained by evaporation, totally aseptic and bacteriologically pure.
Parmesan is generally marketed according to its aging, expressed in months: the longer it is, like the 36 months, the finer it is. Why is your aging limited to about 20 months?
The evolution in the taste of Parmesan is linked to the white granules of tyrosine that become more evident over time.
In the very young cheese, there are very evident hints of butter, hay, and cream. Over time, these soften, and the cheese acquires a deeper flavor, becoming more granular.
With further aging, tastes of spice and nutmeg appear. Over 34 months of age, the taste stops evolving, and beyond this aging time, the product degrades.
But the quality of Parmesan is not only linked to its aging and a long seasoned product is not necessarily good, this is because the ability of a Parmesan to age depends on the milk used. So to know only the months of aging is insufficient to establish the quality.
If the Parmesan is not of good quality, with the aging, it loses many liquids and its texture deteriorates, becoming crumbly. It is attributed to the proteins and fats contained in milk.
In my opinion, Parmesan should not be too young or too old.
Also, Parmesan evolved from simply being used for food preparations as in pasta recipes, to being eaten on its own, and as a result, today consumers want a product for both uses.
For us, the solution is in a slightly shorter aging time, of 20-22 months, in an 18-degree environment with 75% humidity.
In this Parmesan, we find the optimum characteristics of our cheese with creamy and buttery aromas and taste.
However, in our range, we also have 12 and 30+ months aged Parmesan.
What is the origin of the HOMBRE brand?
Behind a block of Bio HOMBRE Parmesan, there is more than a cheese: there is a company, a history, and values.
Our identity is based on our father’s vision, on his life path. He left as a young man for Venezuela (a Hispanic country) where he became a man, a “hombre“. He then returned to Italy, where he made his fortune.
The HOMBRE brand embodies these elements, our identity, just like for the Champagne Houses and their brands.
Who are your consumers?
70% of the consumers of Bio HOMBRE are abroad, mainly in France and the UK. They appreciate the consistent quality of our product, its traceability, and therefore the philosophy of a closed supply chain.
Today we are the only ones who guarantee a unique Parmesan, produced exclusively from an organic closed supply chain, certified by CSQA and ICEA (a certification inspection company and the Institute for Ethical and Environmental Certification).
We try to be an honest company and our consumers appreciate us for this.
How do you envision the Bio HOMBRE Parmesan of tomorrow?
We already control all the inputs in the production of our Parmesan so I do not think we can make a different or better product than the current one.
But we always try to move forward, to evolve in a sustainable way, always focusing on quality. For example, we are developing compostable packaging materials.
How do you feel about your job?
For me, this is the most beautiful job in the world, and it is a job for which one must have great passion.
We work with nature, we bring pleasure, and I think it’s the same for champagne.