Petersham Nurseries – Parmigiano Reggiano & Aceto Balsamico:
When the Great Fire of London of 1666 broke out the one thing the great diarist Samuel Pepys wanted to save was his Parmesan cheese. Parmesan is, of course, an anglicisation of Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O. (though they didn’t have the protected P.D.O status in Pepys’ day), the wonderful cheese that is the root of Italian cooking.
I’m delighted to have been asked to ‘dine amongst the flowers’ at Petersham Nurseries to sample a special meal celebrating products from the Italian Region of Emilia Romagna featuring Parmigiano Reggiano and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O (balsamic vinegar). If you don’t know about Petersham Nurseries it has do be the poshest garden centre on the planet. Ace Aussie chef Skye Gyngell won a Michelin Star -now at Spring- for its restaurant not long after it opened making it the only starred garden centre cafe on the planet.Head Chef at Petersham Nurseries, Damian Clisby, and Head Chef of Nido del Picchio, Daniele Repetti, have collaborated to create a menu with various dishes featuring the different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O. and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O. Things kicked off with a glass or three of a crisp, dry Villa Marcello prosecco whilst we tasted and heard some fun facts about the products.Apparently there are just 337 producers of Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O. making on average 25 cheeses a day from raw milk with the only additives being salt and rennet. Armed with the info we set about tasting three differently aged Parmesans. The 24 month cheese has a light colour, some crunch from crystals formed by the amino acid calcium lactate and a savoury ‘umami’ flavour. It’s great for snacking on with a glass of wine, cocktails or sherry. The 36 month was less moist with a more compact texture, a greater intensity of flavour and a higher density of calcium crystals. It’s an elegant cheese with notes of walnuts and dried fruit and would be a great match with port. My favourite is the 48 month cheese. With notes of Parma ham and leather it is free of the calcium crystal crunch which counter-intuitively makes it a good cheese for the lactose intolerant. I would definitely bury mine if there was a fire.
Our next taste exploration was a journey into Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O. This is the authentic high-value item, not the £2 bottles you pick up at the supermarket.The 12-year-old Aceto Balsamico tradizionale di Modena has a light brown bottle cap. Its sweetness was a perfect match for the Parmesan. But the undoubted star of the show was the 25-year-old Aceto Balsamico tradizionale di Modena with its gold cap and extraordinarily rich concentration of stewed fruit flavours. Having only sampled about fifteen chunks of Parmigiano it was time to move on to the meal.Moving on to a crisp glass of white wine, Tenimento del Barsé, our first starter (how I love that phrase) was a perfect late spring dish. Made with 24, 36 and 48 month Parmigiano Reggiano, spring vegetables and a Haye Farm egg as well as a splurge of 25 year old Aceto Balsamico tradizionale di Modena it zinged with fresh seasonal flavours with the Parmesan adding a nutty saltiness to the mix.24-month Parmigiano Reggiano gave a depth of flavour to the lightest of cheese terrines, served with herbs, asparagus tips, flowers – and because I’m bad I splashed on some 12-year-old Aceto Balsamico for a hint of sweetness.Utilising 24-month Parmigiano Reggiano the dish of cappelletti pasta came in an asparagus, mushroom and seaweed broth. The ‘little hats’ were tender little morsels enlivened by the freshness of the veg and the inauthentic but deliciously savoury seaweed broth.For our mains we feasted on a perfectly cooked lamb cutlet with a delicious Artichoke Alla Romana stuffed with breadcrumbs, wild garlic, Parmesan and tomato.Dessert with vinegar? Of course. Our coffee mousse, chocolate ganache, creamy cardamom milk, beetroot coral and green coffee meringue was given a lift by the 25-year-old Aceto Balsamico tradizionale di Modena P.D.O.
This was a wonderful event in a great space and a brilliant opportunity to explore two of the finest food products on this planet. Proper Parmesan is fantastic on its own with an aperitif and adds so much flavour to so many dishes and the Aceto Balsamico gives a rich sweetness that is unmatched by anything else.