True Italian Taste Project
Italy is a country RICH with cuisine, outstanding produce and tradition. It’s almost enviable. I wish that I could be surrounded with this amazing produce with a different shape of pasta and producer of Parmigiano Reggiano for every single day of the year. Some of the most famous food products in the world come from Italy and you'd struggle to find a person who has not heard of Parmigiano Reggiano...or is it 'Parmesan' that they know?
Italy has over 300 agri-food products and 500 wines recognised as Protected Designation of Origin and Protected Geographical indication by the European Union. That’s a LOT. For one country to have so many, they truly are blessed.
However, with this, and its known worldwide success, come the copies. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…”- there are many Italian sounding products available now which are not authentic, and, to be frank, just aren’t as good! An Italian grating hard cheese does not sit in the same league as a Parmigiano Reggiano for instance. To be clear - this does not include similar style products: a distinct hard, long aged cheese made from cow's milk sits alone, but one, which is fully imitating and 'living off the royalties' of its Italian muse the real Parmigiano Reggiano, does not.
Today, sales of Italian sounding products worldwide have reached the value of €100bn. In the UK the products mainly affected are Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and Olive oil.
I check every label of every product I buy to see where it comes from and I read into the ingredients too, but I fear, actually, I know, that this can't be the case for everyone as we live in an "I'm just so busy" world.
I'd like to introduce you to some excellent Italian products. The type which make you realise what you are missing out on if you find an imitation. The types which encapsulate Italian regional cuisine and culture. The type which are protected by PDOs and PGIs for a reason. The type which are so wonderful, flavourful and succesful that unfortunately imitations are born.
I was fortunate to be invited to Eataly in London yesterday for an Italian Tasting and Cooking Class in association with the Italian Chamber of Commerce and the True Italian Taste project.
We were led by the Eataly Executive chef Eliano Crespi and his team who welcomed us with a smorgasboard (smorgasboard in Italian, anyone?) of aperitivi and a cold glass of Prosecco DOC.
We tasted Prosciutto di Parma DOP, Culatello di Zibello DOP and 3 ages of Parmigiano Reggiano DOP alongside some wonderful vegetables, focaccia made in house and fior di latte mozzarella made in house in the Eataly 'Caseificio'. My initial thoughts from tasting both the Prosciutto di Parma DOP & Culatello di Zibello DOP were the balance, texture and flavour. The salt was absolutely perfect. The texture melted in my mouth. The flavour was complex, developing and long lasting. These features showed the quality of the meat, the craftmanship of creating the product and the talented ageing. All rounded off with the care delivered at the final stage of sale. As a cheese expert I was extremely interested in the complexity of the Parmigiano Reggiano DOP and I have too many words to describe this so I will write a follow up post just on the cheeses tasted! In short, we tried 24, 60 and 120 month aged Parmigiano Reggiano and they hosted flavours which you just cannot mimic in large scale, short time production.
So the cooking class!
We were led by chef Eliano in the preparation of these recipes whilst he thoroughly and eloquently explained the special ingredients we were using.
This Zuppa di Melone was made with not one but two excellent ingredients. We used a Sun Sweet melon from Natoora. This is a relatively new variety of Cantaloupe melon characterised by consistently dense, sugar-laden flesh and honeyed flavour. It is grown by the Zerbinati family in Mantua, Northern Italy, an area renowned for its melon growing. The family is one of the most celebrated producers in Italy, sharing Natoora’s belief in putting flavour first. The aromatics on this melon were intoxicating - I can smell the sweet fruit just by looking at this picture again.
To add an extra dimension we used Sicilian Gambero Rosso Prawns. These prawns cannot be farmed - it is not permitted. They are caught using nets at a depth of 700m - 1000m in Sicilian waters. Their flavour is rich, meaty and saline and we added them raw to our dish. The combination of sweet from the melon, savoury and salty from the prawns and acid from the touch of vinegar added into the soup made for an ecstasy inducing combination.
For our main course we prepared a very simple dish. Sometimes simple dishes are the most difficult to perfect and this is exactly why Chef Eliano chose it.
We made Paccheri al sugo di pomodoro and stracciatella. Pasta + tomato sauce topped with Stracciatella cheese. Chef talked us through his choice of pasta - the Alfetra brand and how this pasta is dried at a much slower and lower temperature to preserve its quality. The Durum wheat and water dough is extruded and pressed through a mould made from brass. He explained how the mould creates tiny abrasions or micro fractures which are essential for the marriage with the sauce. We were told that "The pasta and sauce make love. It's not a blanket, the sauce." What an excellent quote. The pasta and sauce have to integrate and that's where those micro fractures come into play. We also learnt a LOT about the importance of the salt quantity in the pasta water. In this year I've gone from my whole life adding a fair amount of salt, to being told to create Dead Sea conditions now back to the quantity being of high importance and the importance of NOT over salting the water. As well as this, we were taught the importance of the quantity and times of salting throughout the cooking process with the sauce and my god, let's just say I've been been doing it wrong my whole life. Until now!
No, this is not a burrata. We finished with a traditional Delizia al limone to cleanse the palate and set us on our way. The light sponge and refreshing hint of lemon zest was exactly what we needed at the end of a food and wine fuelled afternoon. A grappa or amaro was almost needed but I left on the right side of over indulgence.
Thank you to the Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industry for the UK, True Italian Taste Project and Eataly for your hospitality. My stomach and brain are content and fulfilled after a wonderful afternoon.
I will be creating some reels and posts over on my Instagram page over this weekend so you can see a bit of the action! Plus some candid shots of me scoffing all remaining bits of cheese and eating stracciatella like a yohurt. Find them here :