10 millionPounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano exported to the U.S. each year.
When it comes to versatility and widespread appeal, this cheese stands alone.
Mario Batali is quick to take a stand on the topic of cheese. Staking a celebrity-chef claim with his empire of Italian restaurants, including Osteria Mozza (as in mozzarella) in Los Angeles, Batali says make no mistake, “the undisputed king of cheeses” is Parmigiano-Reggiano.”
Batali isn’t the only one to pay homage to this royal culinary treasure, a cheese so exquisite that according to popular lore, Molière called out for Parmesan on his deathbed and Samuel Pepys buried his stash of it for safekeeping as the Great Fire of London bore down on all his earthly possessions. Whether true or not, anyone who grates its pale ivory-gold shreds over pasta or breaks off chunks for the pure satisfaction of munching understands the passionate devotion Parmesan can invoke. Nutty, buttery, aromatic and inflected with a characteristic crystalline texture, well-aged Parmesan is utterly delightful and nearly indispensible.
Its origins are purely Italian, with evidence that it has been made for more than 2,000 years. Today, its production is guided by more than just tradition; the Parmigiano-Reggiano seal is guided and governed by Italian law. It must come from an area of just several hundred square miles in northern Italy, where dairy cows happily graze the famously fertile grass fields. The 200-million pound annual output is crafted by roughly 600 artisanal producers who mix, form, brine and then age, for one to three years, the slightly bowed, 40- to 80-pound wheels.
It was inevitable that the iconic Italian cheese would wend its way to America and begin a rich history here. Large-scale manufacture of Parmesan began in the mid-1940s, dovetailing a burgeoning, post-war hunger for Italian foods—most especially pizza and spaghetti. Never mind that for many of those years the cheese was most typically seen in tall, slender cans and used to showered down upon many a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Today, it is found in wedges of various ages and sizes, ready for the last-minute shredding, grating, crumbling or shaving that adds flavorful fillips to so many meals.
Jeanette Hurt, author of “The Cheeses of California: A Culinary Travel Guide” and a similar guide to Wisconsin by the same name, is quick to acknowledge quality strides in American Parmesans, especially Wisconsin-made renditions. But when it comes to assembling a cheese tray, she remains a purist at heart, opting for Parmigiano-Reggiano over its domestic kin.
“It has an intense, lingering flavor. It’s a great munching cheese, with sweetness and tang,” Hurts says. She likes to pair it with ingredients that play off the intense rich taste such as honey, aged balsamic vinegar, jams, chutneys, fruits, and many different styles of wine. “Parmesan goes with a greater variety of wines than do many other cheeses.”
With a texture that’s prone to crumble into a pell-mell pile of different sized bits, Parmesan asks for a careful hand and proper tools, advises Hurt. Destined for cheese trays, Parmesan should be broken and chunked, rather than sliced. She suggests using a small cheese knife, one resembling a flat, pointed spade. For grating and shredding, there are multiple options, from box graters to rasps. Depending on the cheese’s age (it shouldn’t be too dry), it also can be shredded with the shredding disk of a food processor. For paper-thin curls, sweep a vegetable peeler across the widest part of the cheese.
Doug Borkowski, executive chef of San Francisco’s Il Cane Rosso, a casual restaurant modeled on small, family-run food stores in Italy, also applauds Parmigiano-Reggiano. Because of the restaurant’s moderate price point, he typically uses a 12-month aged cheese. “It’s a great all-purpose cheese, very nutty,” he says. “And the crystals and enzymes are well pronounced.”
When the cheese arrives at his restaurant, Borkowski cuts off the rinds. “We use a chef’s knife. You need to apply firm pressure so you don’t break up the cheese.” If you want crumbles, he advises “see-sawing” the knife back and forth. Fortunately, he adds, “good Parmesan is also very easy to grate.”
Many foods complement Parmesan, Borkowski notes. When composing cheese plates, he considers dates, figs, grapes, and pears as well as nuts and drizzles of honey or aged balsamic vinegar.
Whatever its use, Borkowski suggests buying the best quality cheese your budget allows and to match it with ingredients that will show off, rather than mask, this beloved cheese’s many charms.
Warning: mysql_num_rows(): supplied argument is not a valid MySQL result resource in /home/cheese/public_html/article.php on line 374
) | Share: