Tuesday, 1 March 2011

My Most Memorable Dish – Parma Ham and Melon in Tuscany




It might sound a little maudlin, but who hasn’t fantasised about their Last Supper? Whether it’s dinner party chat or an ‘If you were on Death Row’ party game, we’ve all relived our favourite meals with friends at one time or another. At EAT, Newcastle’s annual foodie event last year, Simon Preston, the festival director created an ambitious tour de force: the Pearly Diner. Guests pre-ordered their very own Last Supper with the promise that whether it was rare roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, steak frites, or the ultimate artery-blocking fry-up that is what they would be served on the night.

My choice is always the same: Parma Ham and Melon.

Not, of course, the tasteless, watery honeydew topped with a couple of slices of limp, curled-up-at-the-edges ham you’re likely to wind up with if you’re misguided enough to order it in the little trattoria on the high street - but Parma ham and melon in a rustic restaurant in Italy.

It’s the one dish I can eat until I, literally, can’t swallow another mouthful. I never tire of the subtle mix of sweetness and saltiness. And of course it’s testament to the fact that it’s all down to the raw ingredients. There’s not much cooking involved.

And the place where I tasted the best Parma ham and melon in the world? I can’t tell you.

It was somewhere in Tuscany, about ten years ago, while holidaying in a crumbling old farmhouse in the hills above Lucca with my parents and my then-boyfriend. In the visitors’ book we read rave reviews about a local restaurant slightly off the beaten track so we piled into the car to search it out. I remember that it was nothing special from the outside – and a little gloomy inside.

There was an Italian mama. And an old man watching an Italian soap opera, his shirt unbuttoned to the waist. There were hams, hundreds of them, hanging from the ceiling. We were the only customers. She spoke no English. We had just a few words of Italian. It didn’t matter - as there was no menu anyhow. She gestured for us to sit. And brought out the first course: plates piled teeteringly high with the sweetest, most succulent melon I had ever tasted, topped with a tumbling mountain of rich red ham. It was melt-in-the-mouth heaven.

The second course, mounds of moreish mushroom tagliatelle, I could barely touch. The third, half a cow: giant (think Argentinian sized) steaks – forget it. Even the boyfriend, a big burly Aussie called Moose, clutched his belly and had to surrender. Good honest country cooking – Tuscan style. That meal, more than ten years later, is still the one that I will never forget.

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