Last Updated on October 11, 2021
A celebration of the wonders of this iconic Italian cheese.
A few feet away from Bethnal Green, a lovely time was had enjoying and exploring the versatility of Parmigiano Reggiano. Commonly known as parmesan, the varieties that we tried at the Restaurant Da Terra were very distant cousins of the dry mealy stuff spooned in heaps onto spag bol at the local caff. Instead, we not only tried a full course of dishes featuring the cheese and excellently paired wines, but we also got to try the different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano that inspired them.
A collaboration between the Parmigiano Consortium and JRE, or Jeunes Restaurateurs, has produced a series of events and recipes featuring parmesan across Europe. One product of that collaboration was the promotion 40 Chefs, 40 Months to highlight the range of ages Parmesan can be eaten at and the same concept was being promoted here. Looking at the way things are going with other cultural imports these days, it’s probably quite important to hold onto the organisations that are willing to take the plunge into Britain’s increasingly murky gastronomic and commercial waters.
We started off by tasting 4 different ages of the Parmigiano Reggiano by themselves. Passed out onto sheets with little spaces and descriptions of each, a bit like a bougie version of a McDonald’s paper placemat. Due to parmesan’s Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO, there are a set of requirements, including the location of production and length of ageing, for a product to legally be parmesan.
The minimum length of ageing is 12 months and the youngest we tried was 18. Much moister and with a flavour not dissimilar to softer cheeses, the 18 month would go well in a salad or on a cheeseboard especially with some membrillo.
The 24 month is the sort we are used to finding in supermarkets and delis, but it benefits from being shown off on its own and freshly cut, reminds of the rich pasta dishes with which it pairs so well.
The 30 month continues this trajectory, being drier and having more of those crunch crystals for which parmesan is famous. There is also a spiciness that you wouldn’t expect from a cheese, as the creaminess of the younger ages recedes.
The 48 month is almost unrecognisable next to its youngest cousin and they paired very well together. Much crumblier than the others, this is the Grande-damme of parmesan and certainly justifies the scientific judgement that the cheese contains naturally occurring MSG.
But the show wasn’t over quite yet, in fact, it had only just begun. After the crumbs of our hefty chunks of cheese had been cleared away, it was time for the main event, 5 courses, and a few extras, based around Parmigiano Reggiano and cooked by Da Terra head chef Rafael Cagali. The Brazilian, having worked under Heston Blumenthal and Simon Rogan, recently received a second Michelin star for Da Terra in as many years.
We started with a parmesan doughnut, beneath a light crunch, held a chewy dough and a cube of melted parmesan within. Along with the sautéed mushrooms and flaked truffle, this was an earthy opening to the meal.
Our first proper course was a panzanella salad with the 24-month-old cheese. Tart and dehydrated datterini tomatoes burst with fresh flavour, complimenting the tender Stracciatella.
Next was a parmesan dumpling with the 18-month-old cheese. These smooth and silky dumplings, in the northern European sense and not the Asian, floated in a light chicken and sunflower seed broth. Topped with an egg yolk and some crispy leaves, this dish evoked the best sort of home cooking in a high concept manner.
After this was a duck raviolo with the 30-month cheese, a parmesan whey sauce and specially made duck ham. The duck was rich and buttery tender in the light whey foam and the ham was honestly unlike anything I’d ever tasted. Tackier than a regular ham and deep ruby in colour, along with the cheese it was a real delight.
Our fish course somewhat deferred the conundrum of fish with cheese, breaking a cardinal rule of Italian gastronomy, by serving an updated dish from Cagali’s native Brazil with Wild Halibut and the 48-month-old parmesan. This was served with an aromatic moqueca sauce which tasted similar to a south-east Asian curry, complete with okra that successfully masqueraded as lemongrass. The halibut, of course, was perfectly tender and the creamy sauce went especially well with some fiery and sour chillies that livened up the dish.
For dessert were strawberries with a 24-month parmesan sable. Fresh and crisp with a few drops of blood-like viscous 40-year-old balsamic and topped off with a tuille of toasted jersey milk, made this dessert a real treat.
One goody received as we left was a large chunk of the 24-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano. In the short time since it was opened, it’s been used to top off a pumpkin soup, thicken up a carbonara with Croatian Špek, finish off a lentil stew with crusty bread and even act as a snack to break off and nibble on out of the fridge. The versatility of Parmigiano Reggiano knows no bounds and it is unlikely for that to change anytime soon
Da Terra restaurant
8 Patriot Square,
London E2 9NF