Parmesan is a straw-coloured hard cheese with a natural yellow rind and rich, fruity flavour. It is made from cow's milk. Italy's parmigiano reggiano is the original parmesan, although similar versions and replicas can now be found from Argentina, Australia and the US.
However, the original Italian version remains superior, boasting a ripe yellow interior, granular texture and unbeatable flavour. This is partly due to a longer maturing time of around two years, rather than the minimum 12 months required. Authentic Italian parmesan has 'parmigiano reggiano' stamped on the rind. It also has protected designations of origin (PDO) status, which means that you cannot call another cheese parmesan unless it comes from the specific region in Italy, and has been made by the traditional methods.
Parmesan is one of the typical foods, along with truffles, mushrooms and miso, that evokes umami savouriness on your tastebuds.
All year round.
Choose the best
Parmesan swiftly loses its flavour when it's grated, so try to avoid buying it pre-grated in tubs or bags, as it will bear no relation to how it should really taste.
Always buy parmesan in a chunk from which you can cut at home as needed. If possible, buy it from a place where you can see the piece being cut from the whole cheese.
Genuine parmigiano reggiano should have its name stamped on the rind, as well as the year it was made. If it was made for export it will also bear the name of the producer. Avoid any parmesan that looks grey or waxy.
When it's at its best, the surface of a chunk of parmesan has tiny beads of moisture glistening on the surface; this is called 'congocciola'.
Parmesan is sold at various stages of the maturing process. Giovane is the youngest at 14-18 months, vecchio is matured for 18 months to two years, stravecchio for two to three years and the extra-mature stravecchione for three to four years. The more mature the cheese is, the more expensive; younger cheeses are more economical to cook with, while the deeper flavour of older parmesan is best appreciated when eaten as a dessert cheese. As with all cheeses, buy little and often, so that the cheese is always at its best.
Parmesan is made with traditonal rennet, which is a set of enzymes extracted from animal's stomachs that splits the cheese curds from the whey. This means it isn't strictly a vegetarian product. Vegetarian versions of parmesan can be found in supermarkets and delicatessens, although cannot be called parmesan – they are labelled as Italian hard cheese.
Pare, chop or grate as required. If serving it on a cheeseboard, take it out of the fridge 1-2 hrs beforehand so that the flavour and aroma have time to develop.
Keep wrapped in baking parchment and store in the fridge for around two months. If the cheese develops some mould on the surface, just scrape it off; the cheese underneath should still be good to eat.
Grate over pasta or use to make pasta sauces (note: the Italians tend not to use it with fish or seafood sauces), scatter thin shavings over salads, use to make pesto or serve as a dessert cheese with figs or pears.
Spuce up your greens with Gary Rhode's parmesan broccoli, make parmesan wafers to serve in a restaurant-style starter or on a quiche. Parmesan roasties take the humble crispy spud to the next level, or add parmesan to dumplings in this sausage & parmesan cobbler.
Try Grana Padano.