Few people ever get the chance to wrap their mitts around a full wheel of Parmesan cheese, but most mongers have seen the bits of text that dot the rind on a hunk of the dairy delight.
Food52 recently went to the source for some decoding. The rind contains the words Parmigiano-Reggiano, of course, along with two sets of numbers—one of which indicates the factory’s government-issued ID, while the other communicates the dairy where it came from. An empty oval stays that way until it’s marked for sale, and the letters “DOP” (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) are what we call Protected Designation of Origin, which vouches that your Parmesan came from Italy and not, say, Ohio—which in turn guarantees a certain quality.
The text gets impressed on the rind while the cheese is still soft. It’s put into a plastic mold with a sheet that contains all the aforementioned information. There it stays for 24 hours and then continues its journey with a brine bath. It doesn’t arrive on store shelves until at least 12 months later, but usually more like 24.
The pinhole markings are there to help you ensure your parm is the good stuff, and to help you pick out an age that’s right for your tastes—so next time you’re scoping the cheese counter, pay attention to what the stinky stuff is telling you.