The kosher world: Getting a little more cheesy.

This week I visited a trade show very relevant to my industry: Kosherfest in Secaucus, NJ. According to kosherfest.com, “this is where the global kosher industry does business.” And it is also “the world’s largest and most attended kosher-certified products trade show.” I would likely agree with both of these statements.

There were vendors of all sorts: catering/restaurant equipment manufacturers, distributors of kosher Wagyu meats, organic-certified poultry and several gluten-free products too.  There were many high-quality cheeses from France and Italy as well as specialty wines from Argentina.

Parmigiano Reggiano
Real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

One cheese in particular was a new Italian kosher cheese (with O-K certification in Italy): authentic Parmigiano Reggiano.  That’s right, kosher cheese from the Parma and Reggio regions of Italy, as all you foodies know already.  The fact that this new kosher cheese addition was produced at its original pastures isn’t what surprised me.  What’s interesting about this famous, hard, distinctly-aged cheese (of which we Americans like to buy, over-processed and pre-shredded, inside a powder-like dust that comes in plastic jars) is the way they found out how to make it kosher-certified.

Most cheeses are not kosher because of one seemingly simple ingredient: rennet.  Most hard cheeses need this animal enzyme to be formed and aged.  So, there’s a hitch since we Jews have a prohibition of eating milk (or any dairy product) together with our meat.  This is such an important commandment, that it is referenced three times in the Torah (see Exodus 23:19, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21).  Therefore, most kosher cheeses today are made with a vegetarian rennet.  This new kosher Parmegiano Reggiano (hard to say without an Italian accent, eh?), however, is made with real animal rennet from the cow itself.

“Michael, how is this possible?” …you may ask.  Well, I asked the same question.  The reply I got, from the Italian cheese manufacturers themselves and from our local DC-area Vaad rabbi was: “it’s been done like this for years.  Cheese producers just didn’t want to have to pay extra for the strict supervision and process required to use real animal rennet.”  This Italian cheese producer did want and they have done a great job.  This new kosher Parmesan (for all us lay cheese lovers) cheese tastes great, is as authentic as can be and it’s kosher-certified without any doubt.  I’m not sure when it will be available at your local kosher grocer (…ahem, or beloved caterer), but I can only assume it will be pricey.

Besides this cheesy discovery, I found the Kosherfest show to exemplify how the kosher industry has grown over the years and how lucky we are, especially in the US, to have so many kosher options.

One final note is that I came across an article this week titled: Study finds human DNA in some hot dog brands. The headline sounds horrible (and it is), but the highlight for me is that we should not discount what it takes to certify food products as kosher.  yes, kosher products are typically more expensive – but there’s a reason, a good reason.  This may sound self-serving, but it proves that not everything that lacks non-kosher ingredients means it can be counted as a “kosher” food. And vegetarians should not confuse packaged/processed “vegetarian” foods as kosher, if they do NOT bear a reliable kosher symbol on its label (please read CNBC article for many reasons why).

Just one more reason to always remember my motto, when grocery shopping: Got Kosher? (there I go being cheesy again).

About the Author
Canadian-born Michael Medina heads The Kosher Kitchen Catering Co. and Medina Cuisine, a gourmet kosher caterer located in Rockville, MD. Featured in the Washington Business Journal, Northern Virginia Magazine and the Washington Jewish Week, Michael has also appeared as a guest on a local radio show discussing "Keeping Kosher in Washington." Together, Michael's team has served events of over 1500 guests and catered to dignitaries, most recently to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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