|Parmesan showing off its brittle texture|
In the UK, we tend to use it almost as seasoning, grated onto pizza, or shaved over a salad. But there’s more to it than that, this is a fascinating and unusual cheese that’s well worth a more in-depth look. I could go into huge detail as to how it’s made and aged etc. but there are already some pretty good resources on this on the web, so I would invite you to have a look at these videos.
So, how should you buy parmesan? As I've said before, if you can possibly avoid it, you really shouldn't be buying cheese from a supermarket. Try and find your nearest cheese shop, it is well worth the effort to forge a lasting relationship with an expert, the rewards are greater than Nectar points can ever be.
|Parmesan's marked rind|
You should look for parmesan in the biggest squarest lump that you can find/afford, it’ll last well in the fridge but the issue, as always, is that a cut cheese dries out. The cheese, for me at least, is always better when freshly cut, the texture will have a crumbly, and is almost effervescent in the mouth; the flavour will be fresher as well. That’s why the best parmesan you will ever taste is prised from the centre of a wheel of parmesan opened just instants ago. It’s worth noting that as soon as a cheese is cut, the wonderful flavour compounds that have been building up over the years of affinage will be released in a short burst that’s almost criminal to miss.
I included Parmesan on my cheese platter because its taste and texture border on unique in the cheese world and it deserves to be treated as a cheese in its own right, not just as a dust on top of what might otherwise be a bland pasta dish. My recommendation is that the next time you have cause to open a bottle of champagne, you buy a reasonably well aged piece of Parmesan (around a couple of years old) that hasn't been allowed to dry out too much and you prise it apart into small bite size chunks at the last possible moment. Paired with the champagne, or a good dry sparkling wine, it truly comes alive.
Any leftover chunks (unlikely though they might be) go well in in a salad, and don’t forget that the rind can be added to the mix to impart a soup or risotto with a richer savoury flavour – just drop it in to the simmering stock.
I wanted to finish with a brief aside on opening and cutting a wheel of Parmesan. The whole cheese is a bit of a beast, weighing in at around 40kg and it tends to have quite an oily rind making it difficult to manoeuvre.
|My boss Etienne having opened a Parmesan the |
traditional way with his Parmesan knives
Traditionally it’s opened with a set of specialist knives with flat 10 cm long blades, inserting and wiggling to find the natural weaknesses in the cheeses, this splits the cheese leaving a very uneven surface, giving a great idea of how the curds hold together to form the finished cheese. This opening method is considered to respect the texture of the cheese.
In the Mons caves and shop however, we do it differently. We use a very long, extra thick cheese wire to cut the cheese neatly in half, the benefit being a much lower surface area to lose humidity and flavour, with the advantage that it is easier to wrap closely once cut to further reduce undesired loss of water. Pulling a thick cheese wire through a block of solid cheese is no easy business and requires both muscle and technique - it took me a while to get the hang of it.
It’s with a certain nerdy pride that I framed the badge of the Italian affineur from the first Parmesan that I managed to open myself. It’s now sitting on the mantelpiece.