SAVOUR THE MOMENT WITH PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO

Known as the king of cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has undoubtedly conquered the culinary world. Its popularity in Italy is taken for granted, but its rise to power is no less significant with the British. And this is in no small part down to its use as a cookery ingredient. From being the main ingredient in traditional Italian delicacies such as pesto sauce and an essential topping on any number of pasta dishes to more unusual recipes such as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese potatoes, cheese soufflé and even a Spiced Pear Tatin with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese puff pastry, the Italian cheese is, these days, an essential store-cupboard ingredient, also to be enjoyed by itself for an aperitif with a glass of Port, Douro or Bourgogne wine. And we haven’t even mentioned its infiltration into non-Italian dishes, such as a tangy topping to British staple Cauliflower Cheese, a twist on traditional baked Cheese Cake or as the main event in the ever-popular American version of Chicken Parmigiana!

So, why has Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese become the must-have cheese for cooking for so many Brits? Well, it has a lot to do with its flavour, which, in turn, is down to the way it is made. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from raw milk that comes from cows fed only on grass and hay in the region of Emilia Romagna and specifically in the surrounding areas of the cities of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna, on the plains, hills and mountains enclosed between the rivers Po and Reno. The only other additions to the process are natural whey culture, calf’s rennet and salt. It can then be matured from a minimum of 12 months to an average of 24 months or more. The development and subtle changes in the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese flavour over this period of time is why it’s such a great addition to any number of recipes. For example, in its early days it has a fresh and delicate flavour – ideal for crumbling over salads or eating with an aperitif. Then, as the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese matures, its flavour intensifies, making the taste still fragrant but very savoury – which is perfect in a risotto or melanzane alla parmigiana.

Emma Woodford is the head of Carluccio’s Retail and knows a thing or two about Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. She agrees that the cheese has a special quality when it comes to cooking. “Nearly all Italians have a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in their fridge. It’s delicious grated generously on top of pasta dishes or thinly over soup. For a simple meaty accompaniment, I like it shaved over bresaola dressed with fiery rocket leaves; a classic combination in Italy.”

However, it’s not just the flavour that makes Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese such an adaptable cooking ingredient. The texture plays a big part, too. Take a look at any number of recipes using Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and you’ll see words such as “shaved”, “crumbled”, “grated” and “broken up” – which will give you an idea of the range of possibilities this very special cheese has. As Emma says, “I also think it’s delicious eaten in its purest form – in small chunks with a drizzle of good matured Balsamic vinegar.”

Once again, the manufacturing process is responsible for this. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is a cooked cheese rather than a pressed one, and the slow, gentle heating of the milk, and the manner in which it is turned over and broken up during the heating process, is what helps to create its unique granular texture. Plus, that final addition of salt not only gives it its savoury power. The final immersion of the cheese in a solution of water and natural salt contributes to define its flavour while the ageing process determines the formation of the crumbly, grainy and soluble structure and of those small white amino-acid granules that crunch while eating and which make it so irresistible.

And here’s something special you can do with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that’s pretty unique – you can even use the rind to cook with. The rind, which is actually the external part of the cheese which is bathed in the salt, offers a really tasty addition to a soup or stew. Just drop it in, and when it dissolves, all you’re left with is a subtle, lingering flavour that will have any dinner guest coming back for more.

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