Whatever the context, 1,000 years is a long time. Culture has moved at such a pace in the best part of a millennium as to be unrecogniseable – and yet, hard as it may be to believe, dotted around mainland Europe are products that are made in the same way now as they were all those years ago.
There is perhaps no better example of this than Parmigiano Reggiano, the best-loved cheese in Italy and a staple of kitchens around the world. Its history is straightforward, but impossibly far-reaching: first created by monks in the Middle Ages as far back as 1254, its distinctive wheel shape originated as a practical way of keeping the cheese fresher for longer.
A happy byproduct of this endeavour, in addition to creating a cheese that could be kept for months and transported far and wide, was the fact that the maturation process created the distinctive taste and texture of the Parmigiano Reggiano we know today.
And with such a distinctive heritage, it goes without saying that the way this unique cheese is created should be protected. That's why it's a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) product, with strict rules about its production.
To be sold as Parmigiano Reggiano, the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium must check that the cheese adheres to these rules, which include the geographical area – in northern Italy, and including Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna (to the left of the river Reno) and Mantua (to the right of the river Po) – and the ingredients, too.
If the consortium agrees that it complies with the rigorous standards, only then can it be marked with the official Parmigiano Reggiano fire-branded stamp, a signifier to consumers that this is the real deal, not an imitation.
Parmigiano Reggiano is made essentially the same way it was almost 1,000 years ago
Its ingredients are simple: raw, unpasteurised milk, salt and rennet. And the milk is hugely important, with strict governance on the cows' feed followed by the 2,573 farms (most of them still family-run) that provide milk to the producers of this exceptional cheese.
There are no additives or heat treatments used at any stage of the cheesemaking process, and even the rind is perfectly edible, with the hard outer shell formed simply by the reaction of the cheese to the air. All of this adds up to a cheese that's naturally made, with no corners cut, and which is imbued with an indelible sense of its place of origin.
Of course, Parmigiano Reggiano wouldn't be the product it is without the maturation that's so crucial to its final flavour. It's always a matured cheese – the minimum amount of ageing allowed is 12 months, where it has a softer, more delicate flavour – and as you go further up the ageing scale to 22-24 months, 30-36 months and finally to the extra mature 40 months or older, the cheese develops richer, nuttier notes, umami characteristics and the granular texture the cheese is also known for.
Generally speaking, it's at 22-24 months that Parmigiano Reggiano cheese begins to fully express the classic characteristics you'd expect from it, but there's plenty to love about each of the cheeses in its different age ranges.
As you might expect from an Italian product, Parmigiano Reggiano pairs beautifully with wine – fresher, vibrant whites for its younger versions and richer reds for older cheeses – and it's not just a cheese to garnish pastas and salads; it's fantastic for a cheese board, with its subtle character and distinctive texture more than capable of standing up to stronger cheeses.
Whether it's a new addition to your festive snacking or a cooking ingredient you're keen to rediscover, there's no better time than now. See above for a beautiful recipe created to showcase its unique flavour.
Red onion, thyme and Parmigiano Reggiano tart
This is a recipe of few ingredients but where technique is very important. Although not commonly instructed, it’s best to pre-cook the puff pastry to ensure it's fully cooked and you're not left with a layer of uncooked pastry, especially away from the edges. The combination of red onions and Parmigiano Reggiano gives an intense sweet-salty balance, with the flaky pastry giving necessary texture.
- 50g unsalted butter
- 1kg red onions, peeled and sliced lengthways
- Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 1 pack puff pastry, ready rolled, preferably all butter
- Oil and flour for the baking sheet
- Egg, beaten with a pinch of salt
- 1.5g fresh thyme, leaves only, picked from approx. 6-8 sprigs (1 tbsp)
- 100g Parmigiano Reggiano
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (fan).
Melt the butter in a heavy pan and sauté the onions over a low to medium heat, stirring frequently, until completely softened. This will take anywhere between 30 and 40
minutes. Season during and then check the seasoning at the end, as the eventual sweetness of the onions needs enough salt to balance the taste.
While the onions are cooking, prepare the pastry base. Oil an approx. 35cm x 25cm baking dish and dust with flour. Unroll the pastry and place on the baking sheet.
With a sharp knife, score a 1-2 cm border around the edge of the pastry and prick within the border with a fork. Brush the border with egg. Bake at 180°C (fan) for 20 minutes. When removed it should be golden and puffed up. Increase the oven to 200°C (fan).
Spoon the cooked red onions onto the pastry, within the border. The weight of the onions will collapse the pastry but it will be cooked properly.
Cover the onions with the Parmigiano Reggiano then sprinkle the thyme leaves on top. Give the border another egg wash then return to the oven for 10 minutes. Remove when lightly browned on top.
Best served after it’s been out of the oven for 15-30 minutes to allow to cool a little. Cut into four or six pieces and serve with a simple dressed green salad.