“Parmesan?” A huge slab of cheese is brandished over your plate of pasta as you’re about to tuck in. Say ‘when’ and you’ll get a generous coating – or tentative sprinkling - of rich, tangy Italian cheese. I like my Parmesan in thick buttery-yellow slivers. I want to taste the graininess, the crystalline texture. I love a pungent, crumbly mountain, not a light dandruff-style shower.
Often called the ‘king of cheese,’ Parmesan is not simply an accompaniment to carbonara, of course. It gives depth and richness to soups, stocks and risottos, it’s a vital ingredient in pesto, while a few shavings jazz up any salad. Rocket and Bresaola without Parmesan? Unthinkable. It can also be eaten in chunks with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar – or honey. As a dessert it’s delicious with fresh figs and caramelised walnuts or juicy pears.
Parmesan is, arguably, the most famous cheese in the world. If you delve into its history you find literary references to piles of grated Parmesan in Boccaccio’s Decameron back in the 14th century, while Samuel Pepys is said to have frantically buried his Parmesan to save it from the Great Fire of London.
Of course there are plenty of pretenders around. Pale imitators. While the usual territorial squabbles meant that eventually it gained PDO – protected designation of origin. Now only cheese produced in Reggio Emilia, Parma, Modena and part of Bologna can use the name Parmesan in Europe. Look for Parmigiano-Reggiano stamped on the rind along with the date.
Parmesan is a granular, hard cheese, made from cows’ milk and matured for a minimum of 12 months. The cows eat only grass and cereals and are given no antibiotics. The only additive is salt. The cheese spends 20 days in a tank of brine, saturated with sea salt.
As for maturity, Giovane is the youngest (and cheapest option for cooking), Vecchio is between 18 months to two years old, while Stravecchio is matured for two to three years. This is often thought to be the best ‘table cheese,’ wheeled out after dinner. The most expensive Parmesan is Stravecchione, which can be up to four years old. As a rule of thumb, the older the cheese, the more complex the flavour: true Parmigiano-Reggiano has a vibrant, nutty taste with a hint of fruit.
When you’re buying Parmesan, never opt for ready grated cheese as it loses its flavour incredibly quickly. And as for those tubs of powdery Parmesan, they’re a culinary crime. If possible always go to a cheesemonger or deli and watch as your chunk is cut from a whole cheese or ‘wheel’.
Other interesting facts about Parmesan: Italian mothers used to give the Parmesan crusts to their children to chew, as they have a high calcium content. A whole Parmigiano was traditionally hollowed out for special occasions in Italy and used as a serving bowl. And, in Italy, Parmesan is thought to be an aphrodisiac…