Recently named the best chef in Italy by the Guide Espresso restaurant guide, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena has chosen Parmigiano-Reggiano as his star ingredient. Regarded as Italy's unofficial national cheese, it was recently celebrated with a nationwide Parmigiano-Reggiano Night, held in support of cheese makers affected by last spring's earthquakes.
Why did you choose this ingredient?
Parmigiano Reggiano is not just a cheese. It is a living and breathing portrait of our Emilian landscape, part of our DNA, and the cornerstone of the Italian kitchen. It is a cheese with enormous potential in the kitchen. The aging process of Parmigiano Reggiano guarantees a great range of flavor and texture from the same product.
For example, a 24-month aged Parmigiano and a 48-month aged Parmigiano offer different sensations, emotions and possibilities in the kitchen.
I recently discovered that the amino acid L-glutamate which creates the ‘umami’ or savory taste is present in Parmigiano Reggiano cheese as well as in Japanese kombu and Spanish Serrano ham.
What’s your favorite memory of the cheese?
I grew up eating Parmigiano Reggiano crust, boiled in broth or in minestrone, and chewed like gum. My grandmother added the crust to soups to give extra flavor to the broth. Before dinner she would take the crusts out of the soup and leave them on a plate for us to fight over. It is kind of like a fried mozzarella stick, only that the flavor is so much more intense.
'Compression of pasta and beans' is a recipe dedicated to my grandmother. This is a contemporary version of ‘pasta e fagioli,’ a very well known pasta course that is eaten from northern to southern Italy. Here I have re-created my gastronomic history in a shot glass.
What does the dish involve?
On the bottom layer there are two spoons of a 'crème royale' which represents my classical French training from Alain Ducasse. The top layer is 'rosemary air' which pays homage to my life-changing experience with Ferran Adria. In the middle there is classical bean puree with the ‘egg pasta squares.’ However in our case the pasta is not pasta but thinly sliced Parmigiano Reggiano crust which was previously boiled with the beans. This is the emotional part of the dish, chewing on the Parmigiano crust as you eat the bean soup. [It] is a sensation we associate with our grandmothers.
I believe it is important to include an emotional ingredient in every recipe – something that connects you to who you are and where you come from, even when you are creating new traditions.
Wine pairing suggestions?
With raw Parmigiano Reggiano we suggest:
- La Tosa Sorriso di Cieloi – a malvasia from Piacenza
- A Modenese sparkling wine such as Christian Bellei’s Cantina della Volta Il Mattaglio
With a Parmigiano Reggiano cheese soufflé:
- A smoked-chestnut and juniper beer produced in Bologna by Birra Beltaine
- 2010 Vittorio Bera e Figli Arcese Bianco – a Piemonte blend of favorita, arneis, cortese and sauvignon blanc
With risotto, we serve wines from both southern and northern Italy:
- 2011 Arianna Occhipinti SP68 Bianco – a Sicilian biodynamic wine
- Damijan Podversic Ribolla Gialla from Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Is your use of the ingredient affected by the seasons?
Thankfully, Parmigiano Reggiano is not a seasonal ingredient but available all year round... but it must be used with intelligence. Using it seasonally means thinking through the pairing. If pears are in season, or pumpkins, then that is the correct match. Of course, it can be eaten raw in any season. One of my favorite afternoon snacks is chunks with a drizzle of extra-old balsamic vinegar from Modena.
Crème Brule of Parmigiano Reggiano with caramelized balsamic vinegar on top is both savory and sweet and full of umami. Parmigiano Reggiano ice cream with a sweet plum pie is outstanding as well. In all these examples it is very important to remember that the quality of the product will determine the end result.
What other foods or ingredients does it pair best with?
We are serving in Osteria Francescana 'Cacio e pera' – the classic combination of cheese and pear. This plate is both Emilian, with our great fruit production, and seasonal.
We are also serving a plate which takes its inspiration from an iconic Roman pasta dish called 'Spaghetti cacio e pepe.' We have transferred the idea to the north – to Modena – and replaced the spaghetti with Vialone nano rice, and the Pecorino Romano with Parmigiano Reggiano.
Of course, we have added some kitchen tricks, some forward thinking, and also six different pepper grains to create a seemingly simple dish which paints a clear image of the Emilian landscape – a monochromatic painting, white on white, like the fog that rolls in every spring and fall covering the flat pastures and fruit trees.
This recipe is a reflection on Emilia, its history but also its future. Thousands of Parmigiano Reggiano farms were damaged and destroyed during the earthquakes this spring in Emilia. I created this dish to help people remember that we Emilians are bound to our territory – producers of rice and cheese and pork products – more than we even realize.