How many times have you been in an Italian restaurant and nodded as the waiter questions “parmesan?”. Or made a salad and haphazardly drizzled over some balsamic? Like me, I imagine it’s a fair few. Well folks, I can tell you that we’ve been doing it all wrong.
Last week I was invited to a wonderful dinner at one of London’s top Italian eateries, Bocca Di Lupo, for a very special private event. Away from the counters and buzz of the upstairs kitchen, 20 bloggers, critics and food writers gathered to experience “Assi nella Manica”, a culinary project otherwise known as the Perfect Italian Pair.
Hosted by Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O. and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale de Modena P.D.O., a 6 course menu celebrated these two authentic Italian products created by Bocca Di Lupo Chef Jake Simpson and Michelin starred Isa Mazzocchi.
British culture has changed much of Italy’s cookbook, from the addition of meatballs to spaghetti, to the non-existent garlic bread that actually originated in America. In the same way, somewhere down the line a few Brits took two quality products from Italian cooking and commercialised them to become affordable, everyday condiments. I found it fascinating to learn that in fact the parmesan and balsamic we consume today are in fact false representations of the true ingredients.
The original Parmigiano Reggiano is the only accurate parmesan cheese, created with strict specifications to ensure its quality. Similarly the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is a vinegar so superior that it is certified by a board of expert tasters before being poured into numbered bottles of a particular shape to preserve the aroma.
Both are created in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, using ancient production methods and an extensive aging process to develop a rich tang. It wasn’t until this dinner that I opened my eyes and treated my tastebuds to the real depth of their flavours.
The evening began with a toast of sparkling wine from Bologna, a delicious yet unexpectedly cloudy grape (on purpose of course) from Orsi Vigneto San Vito. Olives and introductions were shared as we took our seats ready for the main event.
But first to taste the products. Three variations of Parmigiano Reggiano were offered to taste the differences in age. An 18 month piece was sweeter, whilst the 24 and 30 months became dryer, more granular and complex. Then came the balsamic, two ages poured separately and eaten with the cheese.
I’d expected a similar age range, but no these balsamics are aged for 12 and 25 years! Unlike most food tastings, here we began with the oldest, a sweeter thick syrup compared to its younger slighter more acidic sister. They were astoundingly different to the vinegars I’d been drizzling over salads. The watery, tangy liquid was replaced with a luxurious rich sauce you wanted to smother strawberries in and pour over pizza. I could now understand why these passionate Italian producers used these ingredients as much more than a last minute topping.
And with that we were presented with dish after dish of innovative creations, each using the cheese and balsamic as core notes of a flavour combination.
First, white asparagus rolled in crispy Parmigiano Reggiano…
Followed by a rich yellow egg atop a creamy cheese sauce, sprinkled with crisp taglioni…
Next a sliver of grilled polenta, accompanied by porcini, Parmigiano Reggiano sauce and cream…
And then for the crème de la crème; the Raviolo Di Ravioli, a masterpiece created by Isa Mazzocchi who entered to a round of applause. A bubblewrap layer of 12 individual ravioli portions, all contained within one sheet of pasta. Each column journeyed through the ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, showcasing a lifetime of strength and depth of flavour.
A last savoury dish was presented by Bocca Di Lupo’s Jake Simpson who received an incredible reception for his roast squab, stuffed with squash and chestnuts. The bird was marinated in Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Modena, wonderfully pink inside and full of spiced flavour like an Italian roast chicken.
And finally for the sweet display; a vanilla crème brûlée, containing both ingredients to compliment a white chocolate cream.
To call this a dinner is perhaps an underrating for it was more of an opulent artistic showcase, demonstrating how two truly quality ingredients we already know and love are in fact so much richer and authentic that we thought. I’m now going home to throw out my Tesco own balsamic…
You can purchase both Parmigiano Reggiano and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Modena in various quality stores including Amazon and Harrods. Be warned this isn’t the cheapest product on the market but both are of the highest quality and will last a long time in your food cupboards!
A big thank you to Parmigiano Reggiano, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Modena and Bocca Di Lupo for a truly wonderful evening.