Who can remember, just, when Parmesan came ready-grated in little cardboard shakers and looked and tasted, well, like cheesy dust that might have come from a chiropodist's surgery?
Even though Parmigiano Reggiano suffered the worse tragedy in its history earlier this year, thankfully, we are unlikely to return to this parlous state. In May, the Emilia-Romagna region suffered two significant earthquakes (albeit barely reported in the UK) nine days apart that flattened houses and damaged churches. What's more, the earthquakes sent hundreds of thousands of Parmesan wheels – weighing 35 to 40kg, taking about 550l of milk and worth upwards of £350 each – crashing to the ground from the high shelves where they were stored and aged for a year or more in humidity-controlled warehouses.
Estimates suggest that more than £100m worth of cheeses were destroyed, a third of the annual production. It has been catastrophic for the local economy, where wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano are rated so highly that banks allow Parmigiano producers to use them as surety guarantees for bank loans to help their cash flow whilst the cheese matures. Many banks still accept interest payments in Parmigiano. Andrea Nascimboni, who owns Caseficio 4 Madonne, told me, when I was in Modena last month, that a bank had offered its vaults for Parmigiano storage because his warehouses were so badly damaged.
I'm hopeful that there's some kind of silver lining to such unprecedented cheese plight. There been a massive and creative rallying of solidarity with the cheese makers affected, both in Italy and the UK, too; John Savage-Onstwedder, producer of Welsh raw milk cheese Caws Teifi is running an ongoing campaign, saveacheese.com, which enables us to buy cheese directly from the stricken producers.
We're waking up to what makes DOP Parmigiano Reggiano, made with infinite care, so special and utterly different to Gran Padeno (in my view, an inferior, usually industrial substitute, often used in pre-prepared dishes, that lacks the depth and character). Parmigiano Reggiano's physically demanding production is still resolutely artisanal. It is among the healthiest of cheeses: so low in lactose that it is suitable for the lactose intolerant, high in calcium, easily digestible and has one of the lowest cholesterol levels of any cheese. It has the natural propensity to age exceptionally well – and though the market for aged Parmigiano Reggiano is still small in the UK, it is starting to develop. Besides, it is far more versatile than merely being the final grated flourish to a dish: try Parmesan savoury crisps, Parmesan in vegetable bakes, in a soufflé, in spinach muffins, to finish a rare beef, watercress and chicory salad and even as chessert with saffron poached pears.
Parmigiano Reggiano's history can be traced way back to the Middle Ages. It was first produced in the Po Valley by Cistercian monks as large wheels of cheese that could be easily stored but, above all, might help sustain pilgrims on their long journeys.
Nowadays, in order to carry the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) mark, Parmigiano Reggiano must be made in the provinces of Reggio Emilia and Parma, Modena, an area of Bologna on the left bank of the river Reno, or Mantua, on the right bank of the river Po.
There are around 600 caselli, or artisan producers, whose cheeses are all periodically monitored as they mature by the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, the official group responsible for the quality of the production and certification. The wheels are checked by tapping the rind with a special little hammer that can divine any problems from the sound. The technique has been very useful for working out wheels that appeared to be fine after the earthquake yet actually had internal schisms so wouldn't mature properly and had to be sold off young.
Parmigiano Reggiano mezzano denotes a 12-month wheel meant to be eaten young. Parmigiano Reggiano are suitable for longer ageing, 24 months or more, and the additional branding of Extra denotes an ultra-superior wheel. Each carries an ID code number for the dairy plus month and year of production: the higher numbers signify the more robust cheeses made in the mountains while lower numbers are from valley Caseificio and considered the most prized. What's critical – and already appreciated by the Italians and beginning to be more widely understood – is that the cattle breed vitally affects the taste, too. It was thrilling to find Pezzata Rossa, from red cows, aged for at least 30 months, on a tasting platter of different types and ages of Parmigiano Reggiano at a beguiling new restaurant, In Parma, in fashionably foodcentric Fitzrovia. The charismatic owner, Christian, whose mission is to have us understand all manner of DOP Italian products simply served (including the silkiest Culatello di Zibello), is quick to extol the virtues of red cow Parmigiano Reggiano – with its distinctive reddish-brown rind and golden paste with deep, intense, finely granular texture and rich spice and dried-fruit taste – which is very different from the more moist and crumbly pale ivory 18-month Parmesan.
The best Parmesan I've ever tasted is made from the milk of Vacca Bianca Modenese, which graze in idyllic high-altitude pastures of herbs and greens close to Caseificio Rosola. Italy's hottest chef, the three-Michelin-star Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana, a native of Modena, took me to a modest farm in the Appenine Hills and introduced me to this most incredibly savoury, piquant yet delicate cheese.
The production of Caseificio Rosola is so modest and demand so strong among local connoisseurs that, sadly, it is only sold direct from the farm and it is one of the cheeses used in Bottura's astonishing signature dish, five ages and temperatures of Parmigiano Reggiano. This encompasses an ethereal demi-soufflé made with 36-month Hombre Bio Parmigiano Reggiano from Modena, a siphoned foam with 30-month Rosola, a liquid cream of 36-month Rosola, a crisp 40-month Morello di Mezzo, Soliera-aged wafer and the quintessence of Parmesan, "a breath of air" derived from a broth of Parmigiano aged 50 months.
Bottura was also chosen to create the recipe for the world's largest virtual Italian dinner, which took place at the end of October. His recipe, combining the local cheese, the rice-eating culture of northern Italy and the flavours of a classic Roman pasta dish, is Risotto Cacio e Pepe using a Parmesan water instead of stock for the risotto, which enhances the incredible depth of savouriness of the cheese. Unconventional, yes, sublime, definitely.
Potato, parmesan and fennel al forno By Theo Randall
1 kg of Roseval potatoes
300g grated parmesan cheese
3 heads of fennel
1 clove garlic
250ml double cream
Peel the potatoes and cut in to 2cm pieces. Cut the fennel in to wedges 2cm thick.
Blanch the fennel until tender in boiling salted water. Remove and drain, retaining the water.
Add the potatoes to fennel water and cook until a knife goes through them. Drain the potatoes.
In a large bowl add cream, chopped garlic and 150g of the grated parmesan. Mix together and season.
In a ceramic dish, spread the mixture over the potatoes and fennel. Cover with thin foil and bake for 15 minutes at 180C. After 15 minutes remove the foil.
Mix the breadcrumbs and the remaining 150g of parmesan.
Sprinkle this on top of the fennel and potatoes and place back in the oven until lightly golden.