Tucking a wisp of hair behind my ear with dough-crusted fingers—and wiping my forehead with an equally floury elbow—I straighten up sorely to admire the scene before me. I’ve just made 10 little ravioli packets from scratch. And it only took me 2 hours.
My pasta cooking workshop in Florence is a stone’s throw (ambitious) from the duomo, the city’s iconic cathedral with the domed terracotta roof that makes it into everyone’s travel photos.
For Italians, pasta provides the perfect textural vehicle to deliver some of Italy’s most beloved ingredients to your taste buds: grassy-peppery olive oil, sweet earthy tomatoes, and sharp, unctuous cheese.
It’s this last ingredient, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, that has shaped Italian history, culture and cuisine since as far back as the Middle Ages.
Italian culture is built on coming together over food, and Italian food is anchored by the centuries-old tradition of making Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
One of the most valuable cheeses in the world
Right at this very moment in kitchens all over the country, nonnas are cooking up some of the best nosh you’ll find from Milan to Sicily. We can all picture it: giant feasts at communal tables where multiple generations of family and friends tuck into rich, flavourful, homegrown dishes from traditional recipes—like that of Parmigiano Reggiano—that have been passed down through the centuries. I’m convinced this food-and-family approach to life is why Italians live so long.
So valuable is the cheese that it has even been the target of organized crime. In what I can only envision as a Godfather-worthy heist in 2015, one gang stole 2039 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano from warehouses in northern and central Italy.
Absurd! Comical, even! You might say. That is until you consider this: a single wheel can cost over USD$1000, and the world eats around $2.6 billion worth of the cheese each year. Following the financial crisis of 2008, the New York Times reported that one Italian bank was accepting Parmesan cheese as collateral for loans. It continues to be a backbone of the Italian economy, even described by some as worth its weight in gold.
For many reasons, it’s a cheese worth coveting.
A cheese ahead of its time
It turns out that 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio and I share a utopian vision of the future.
Published in 1344 in his book The Decameron, he described the imaginary town of Bengodi where you’d find a “mountain, all of grated Parmesan cheese” on which “dwell folk that do nought else but make macaroni and ravioli.” What could be better than that?
In fact it was a better vision of the future that led to the creation of the cheese in the first place by Benedictine monks looking for a way to preserve excess milk. What appears to be a giant leap for conservation efforts way ahead of its time, Parmigiano Reggiano could be one of the most successful eat-more-waste-less innovations in history.
The cheese is made the same way today as it has always been made since the 1200s (and possibly even earlier). It uses just three basic ingredients: raw cow’s milk, salt, and rennet, a natural enzyme. It contains no additives or preservatives. The traditional artisan process and the strict regions in which it must be made (Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua to the right of the Po river, Bologna to the left of the Reno river) are meticulously protected right down to the diet of the dairy cattle, by a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) label.
You can tell a real Parmesan chunk from an imitator by its embossed rind with dotted letters depicting the name, ”Parmigiano Reggiano”, date of production, and oval seal of approval from the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium.
Recipe: Parmesan-poached pears with gianduia chocolate cream and Parmesan chips
Today, Italian chefs are on a mission to show the world how Parmesan is so much more than a pasta-topper. That it can be a gateway to culinary creativity and Italian cultural exploration, even if you’re only travelling as far as your own kitchen.
One of those chefs is Luca Marchini, whose Michelin-starred restaurant L’Erba del Re in Modena is a bucket list worthy destination unto itself. Forget what you know about how to use this cheese in cooking. Marchini’s recipe for Parmesan-poached pears breaks all the rules. This sweet-salty creamy-crunchy creation is a Michelin-star-quality dessert you can actually make at home. It’s a testament to the versatility and centrality of this cheese’s role in Italian life. A little taste of history, culture and culinary triumph all in one.
For the pears
4 ripe pears
1L fresh milk
300g grated Parmigiano Reggiano
For the chocolate cream
1 cup fresh milk
⅕ cup heavy cream (35%)
100g gianduia chocolate pieces
3 egg yolks
For the chips
20g grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Granulated sugar to sweeten
- For the pears: Pour the 1L of milk and 70g sugar into a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a low simmer over medium heat. Once the mixture is warm and the sugar has dissolved, add the 300g grated Parmigiano Reggiano and stir continuously until melted. Use an immersion blender to achieve a perfectly smooth consistency with no chunks.
- Peel and core the pears, leaving them whole. Immerse the pears in the milk mixture. Poach them for at least 2 hours at 60C (leave the saucepan on the stove at the lowest setting). After 2 hours, refrigerate the whole thing for at least 12 hours.
- After 12 hours, reheat the infusion with the pears. Remove them from the saucepan and lightly dab off any drips.
- For the chips: Evenly distribute the grated Parmigiano Reggiano in a thin layer on a microwave-safe baking tray, and microwave for about 2 minutes until melted together. Remove from microwave and tip the Parmesan layer onto kitchen paper to absorb some of the fat. Sprinkle it all over with granulated sugar and let cool. Once cool, crack the sheet into a few big pieces or smaller crumbles.
- For the chocolate cream: Warm the cup of milk and ⅕ cup of cream together in a small saucepan. While it is warming, mix the 50g sugar with the egg yolks. Add it slowly to the warm milk and cream mixture, stirring constantly until smooth and fully incorporated. Add the 100g of chocolate pieces and continue cooking and stirring constantly until the mixture becomes smooth and creamy and starts to thicken slightly.
- To plate: Ladle some of the chocolate cream into the bottom of a small shallow bowl. Place one of the pears standing upright in the centre of the cream. Place one of the Parmesan chips on top of the pear, or crumble smaller pieces over the top. Buon appetito!
Travel through food
I have a confession to make. The cooking class I took in Florence was over a decade ago. Yet I can still feel the pure experiential joy of making such a soul-satisfying dish from scratch, and recipes like Marchini’s bring back the most vivid memories I have of Italy, ones that get stored deep in the powerful sensory parts of our brains.
Food is one of the best ways to transport ourselves to other places. So if you’re sitting at home, grounded, when you’d prefer to be in Italy, grab a block of Parmigiano Reggiano and get cooking!
- Parmigiano Reggiano is naturally lactose free
- The minimum maturation is 12 months, but some are aged for over 40!
- Over 56,000 tons were exported from Italy around the world in 2019
- 30g contains 50% of your daily calcium, and the cheese is an excellent source of Vitamins A and D, iron and potassium
- In the first half of 2020, Canada demanded 153.9% more Parmigiano Reggiano than the year before, outpacing the year-over-year increase in demand from China, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium put together!
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