Parma's Prides
by George Pandi
 


©Photo by Lois Siegel

George Pandi
1936-2011
Ottawa-based travel and food writer
Tries to teach the world where to go and what to eat and drink
Proud honourary member of the Canadian Culinary Federation



Parmigiano

If there was a culinary Garden of Eden where all fine flavours first bloomed, it had to be in Italy and,
notwithstanding protests from the Veneto and Tuscany, likely in Emilia-Romagna. That region shines with the excellence of its produce and loves to eat-its capital is justly known as Bologna The Fat. Small Parma has gained even more fame for its food. "Parma, city of art," "Parma, City of Music," pick any of the tourist brochures but deep in your heart-and stomach-you know Parma as the city of great food, home of ham and cheese gone to heaven, prosciutto di Parma, culatello, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Here are their stories....

Prosciutto

Imagine that an Italian food company registered the words "Pure Quebec Maple Syrup" as a trade mark, produced some maple-flavoured liquid in Milan and sold it as Pure Quebec Maple Syrup (TM). Next, imagine that Canadian producers wouldn't be allowed to call their product maple syrup because a sneaky Italian company already owned the name.  Exactly that happened in Canada. Maple Leaf Foods registers "Prosciutto di Parma" as a trade mark, produces some salted-dried pork and sells it under the Italian name. Next? You guessed right: producers who make the traditional, original prosciutto di Parma can't call it by its real name in Canada because Maple Leaf Foods was more clever with the paperwork.

Parma prosciutto has been made for centuries of pigs raised in the Parma region (the European Union recognized it with a DOP, (Denomination of Origin Protected), their hams processed under strict rules, cured for at least 12 months. The Canadian version is made of prairie pigs and aged eight months. It could proudly bear a red maple leaf, yet Maple Leaf Foods unpatriotically uses Italy's green-white-red national colours on the package (shoppers, beware!).  How does it taste? Well, I believe that Maple Leaf Foods has better lawyers than butchers. I said "believe," not stating it as a fact, because I also believe that Maple Leaf Foods' lawyers can salt and hang me up to dry like a prosciutto. For legal facts, go to www.american.edu/ted/parma.htm.


Fresh, just salted hams begin
 their evolution into prosciutto

I get emotional about the subject because I love the real thing. Recently I went to heaven, that is, to San Vitale, a village with mountain breezes that cure ham to perfection. In the cool cellar of the Antiche Cantine Luppi, a respected producer, I sampled from three plates of paper-thin slices of prosciutti. No callow youths of eight months. Luppi has pushed the envelope of minimum 12 months and makes prosciutti aged 24, 30 and 36 months. Was the oldest the best? For some. Others welcomed the slightly moister 30-month. The 24-month was wonderful but... well, it would have had some way to go if we hadn't eaten it. 


Photo by Studio 212

The strict regulations of Denomination of Origin, that ensure the quality of Parma ham, demand that the meat come from specially bred pigs that gain their full 150-kg weight in this area. The hams are not smoked but air cured. The curing process begins with the meat rubbed twice with salt and allowed to rest refrigerated for three months. After a wash and dry, aging starts with a four-month stint in warehouses that the mountain breezes can enter through louvers. The hams are then sealed with lard and hung for another three to five months while the remaining moisture spreads evenly through the meat. At the end the quality inspectors sniff the hams and stamp those that pass with the ducal crown of Parma. Even if you could afford to buy an entire prosciutto, don't get it whole. Slicing it properly paper-thin by hand is beyond the skill of professionals; even the most tradition-bound Italian restaurants use a machine, so have it sliced at the shop.


Maturing prosciutti


Most of us discovered prosciutto con melone, draped over wedges of cantaloupe but I suggest that you splurge on ripe figs to go with it. If you like, spread slices over a mildly dressed salad or make a ham and cheese sandwich on bread spread with mascarpone. But it's best to have Parma ham with more Parma ham, accompanied by good crusty bread and a splash of your best olive oil. Never cook it, unless wrapped around steamed asparagus, spread with butter, scattered with grated cheese, and passed briefly under the grill. But do throw any scraps into a pasta sauce. Wilt onion in butter, add cream and julienned prosciutto, heat through, stir in grated parmesan and pour it over pasta.


Culatello


Could I be seduced away from a thirtyish prosciutto? Could Parma's pork virtuosi improve on perfection? Yes. They also make culatello. While prosciutto includes the sinewy and bony lower part of the leg, culatello is only the higher and inner plump muscle. The name makes clear its anatomical
position without any image-conscious designer nonsense: the dictionary translates "culo" as arse.
While prosciutto cures in the mountain breezes of the hills south of Parma, culatello matures in the foggy air along the Po River. The locals figured that to compete with prosciutto, they needed something different. They chose larger pigs, 250 kg against Parma's 150-kg youngsters. They skin and debone the legs, then massage them with salt and pepper for ten days to make them tender, wrap in bladder and a net of string, then hang up. Even in the humid riverine air, the hams lose nearly half of their weight and gain in price. The good stuff goes for $75 a kilo, a whole leg about $300.



Andrea Samaritani - Meridiana Immagini
Culatello


The most respected kind is the culatello di Zibello that comes from one of eight villages in a Denomination of Origin Protected zone. Many of these are made in quantity, all year around, but fourteen producers formed the Consorzio di Culatello di Zibello, and tightened the artisanal rules. They produce only during the cold months between October and February, and mature for at least 12
months.


Luciano Spigaroli
 proud culatello maker
 a founder of the Consorzio Culatello di Zibelle



How to eat it? The Consorzio produces only 15,000 culatelli a year, so none is likely to turn up in your neighbourhood. You have to travel to the source. Order a modest taste in a restaurant (I sampled in the producer-owned Il Cavallino Bianco in Polesine Parmense). Go through the ritual of a wine tasting. Hold up a slice, note the deep pink colour, admire the translucence. Sniff and appreciate the sweet and spicy scent of maturity. Lower the slice in your mouth and become one with it. After prosciutto, you'll discover new dimensions in culatello: tamed salt, sweet nuttiness, texture that needs no chewing. The streaks of white fat will melt and disappear; it would be a crime to trim them
and no reason-you won't have enough opportunities to build up any culatello-based cholesterol. In fact, a serious culatello, over 20 months of age, will be served with swirls of butter to lubricate and enliven it. Don't even think of bread. Just let it wash over your tongue and drive your taste buds crazy.  

Parmesan

We don't say "bring me a Labatt beer." Everyone knows that Labatt is a beer. We say "pass the parmesan" because everyone knows it's a cheese. It's so commonplace, the name lost its capital initial long ago, like aspirin, cognac and frankfurter. Nothing is wrong with the generic name, provided that you know and respect the difference between the real thing and its attempted imitations. Dairies on four continents make the world's best known cheese but many of their wares should be labeled as "parmesan-wannabe cheese-type food product."


Cheese-maker Abele Bertozzi's old poster
shows the excitement over the aroma of Parmigiano


We call the real thing parmesan because the British called it that because the French called it that ever since Caterina dei Medici, who married their king, conquered Paris with it. Officially, it should be called Parmigiano-Reggiano and you better write it with a capital 'P' and capital 'R' or the Consorzio will send its lawyers after you. The towns of Parma and Reggio nell'Emilia fought long over the denomination of origin until the court decided not to favour either and gave us this mouthful of a
brand name.

As early as the 8th century BC, Homer described a hard cheese from the Po Valley in Northern Italy, the probable ancestor of today's grana cheeses. Grana means grain and refers to the granular texture. Parmesan can get so hard that, instead of cutting, it has to be split with small daggers with short, wedge-shaped blades. Yet, because of the grain, it practically melts in the mouth. The texture adds to the complexity of the flavour that is strong but not sharp; the cheese is rich and full, even though its fat content is low.


Checking the temperature and acid content
 of the curdled milk

Parmigiano-Reggiano is made of cow's milk, traditionally a blend of morning and evening milkings. The milk is heated with a starter whey out of the curdled milk from the day before, and further acidified with rennet that makes it curdle. The curds are stirred until they break into rice-sized grains, then drained through cloth and poured into a round mold with a weight on top. The molds are turned every two hours for a few days until the mass of curd is dense enough to hold its wheel shape. The wheels are then salted in brine for about three weeks. Aging takes an average of two years, up to five years. During aging the milk proteins break down, free amino acids form and crystallize, giving the cheese a fine crunchy texture. 


Old and young wheels of Parmigiano
 maturing in the warehouse


You seldom meet a full 40-kg wheel of parmesan and won't face the challenge of cutting it. Buy a big chunk (it lasts forever) and pry off pieces with an oyster knife, a good substitute for the traditional cheese dagger. Thumb-sized splinters from an old, mellowed cheese make wonderful appetizer nibbles with a dry white wine, a light Chardonnay or a sparkling Prosecco.  Younger, less distinguished parmesan wants to be grated and sprinkled over pasta or stirred into risotto. It works well in stuffing and is the only cheese to add to soup because it melts without forming strings. Grate it fresh; if you have it grated in the shop, use it the same day or the flavour will dull.

The best grana-type cheese outside Parma and Reggio is Grana Padano made across the Po River. Since it's milder, some people prefer it for eating by itself. Padano may approximate the quality of Parmigiana-Reggiano; I use it for cooking, for example, in pesto or pistou or in stuffing, and don't feel I compromise. For nibbling or to grate fresh on pasta, I use authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano: it costs more than the next best thing but gives value for money, length and breadth in taste, intense and complex flavours. The expense evens out; throw a dollar's worth of the queen of cheeses on a 25-cent serving of pasta and you have a dish fit for a king.


Taste more!
An aid to better cooking, eating, drinking
An E-Book by
George Pandi

Eighty-seven chapters, 290 pages
 fully indexed by subject
 formatted for computer screen viewing


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