These days, parmesan and balsamic vinegar are pretty much household staples, or at least for those in the cooking-show-watching households anyway. I’ll be the first to admit guilt; I’ve drizzled balsamic vinegar over rocket leaves which I’m not entirely sure I like eating, and dutifully grated parmesan over my pasta as if my Italian street cred depended on it. But of course, that would be exactly the thing not to do… I should instead be ditching these imposters and going back to their true Italian roots, I should be stocking my shelves with Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO. Bit of a mouthful, bit more expensive, but a little bit goes a lot further when you are using the real deal.
Both Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO are probably victims of their own success; their increased popularity have driven a desire for increased accessibility and as a result the parmesans and bog standard balsamics of the world have flooded our supermarket shelves. But the traditional Italian producers are fighting back and re-educating consumers. I think the proof is in the tasting. I always thought the cheese and vinegar I picked up at the supermarket, while not the best on the market, was good enough… but I soon realised what a naïve view that was.
Parmigiano Reggiano PDO can only be called as such when it’s produced under strict conditions related to the origin and process, and when it passes a final inspection at the end. Similarly, Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO also has rules around the origin, ageing and barreling processes in order to hold that title. But on top of all these technical elements, it’s really the passion and enthusiasm of the producers that makes Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO unique. I learnt a lot of facts and figures about both products but what stuck with me most was the mantra that Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO should be used as ingredients not condiments. They’re good enough to form integral parts, not mere afterthoughts being thrown on top of a dish!
Chefs Chris Leach of Sager & Wilde and Gianpaolo Raschi of Michelin-star Restaurante Guido certainly rose to that challenge with their menu; making a pairing almost as perfect as the star Italian ingredients themselves. The opener was a generous splodge of burrata accompanied by a strawberry and pine nut sofrito laced with the rich 25 year old Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO. This was a cleverly balanced combination; the cool burrata acted as a clean palette for the sweet yet sharp sofrito underneath. I equally loved the springy prawns with the contrasting flavours of the liquid lettuce and 24 month old Parmigiano Reggiano PDO cream. If it were just those three elements, I’d say this was a dish light on its feet and quite refreshing but the showering of black truffle had other ideas… this brought a bold but welcomed, savoury dimension to the dish!
Squid with spinach, duck liver and red onion sounded like music to my ears but in reality, the execution was a little disappointing. The tender squid was let down by the tough, rubbery liver and vegetables. I know the portions were supposed to be small but one meagre piece of pickled red onion and a few wilted spinach leaves were ineffective at adding much flavour or finesse. My tastebuds were happily awoken by the unusual pasta dish of passatello romagnolo. The inclusion of breadcrumbs in this worm-shaped pasta provided a surprisingly pleasant gritty texture when paired with the soft chickpeas and succulent little clams.
I thought I might have been happy with another serving of pasta but then the last two dishes really wowed me, the purity and intensity of flavours in both were on point. I’m not sure I can happily eat plain old bangers, mash and onion gravy again without being reminded of this far superior twist on the classic. A few thick slices of beef sausage served with fried potatoes, roasted shallots and lashings of nutty 30 month old Parmigiano Reggiano PDO would be every carnivore’s dream. Roasting figs in Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO is so obviously a good idea that I’m ashamed I didn’t think of doing it sooner; the result was sticky and sweet, but not sickly due to the sharpness of the vinegar. All the figs needed were a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and it was autumn comfort in a bowl!
I know it’s easy to get enthusiastic about these ingredients when you sample them through a menu as good as this, but by the end of lunch, I was actually embarrassed by the sad parmesan block lurking in the back of my fridge and the dribble-stained bottle of less than decent balsamic vinegar in my pantry. Having now eaten the real stuff straight from Italy, both on its own and in some delightful dishes, I can concede that what I thought was perfectly passable was really, really not. Not even close, so if you get a chance to try proper Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO for yourself, do it!
Have you ever tried proper Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO?
Thanks to Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO and Sager & Wilde for making me realise why the traditional products are so much better, but as always, all opinions are mine and mine alone!
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