Parmigiano-Reggiano is the correct name for what most Americans, Canadians and those from the UK call by the name,” parmesan cheese”. Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, this cheesy delight is not a creation of the Tuscan region. The cheese comes from several provinces of Italy, including, of course, both Parma and Reggio Emilia, from which it gets its name. It is also called the “King of Cheeses”.
There are strict laws that apply to Parmigiano- Reggiano. It must contain only three ingredients: milk produced in the legally declared regions for production, salt and rennet which is a natural enzyme found in cow intestines. The cheese is heavily regulated in Italy and the EU so that imitators cannot spoil the reputation of this gastronomic delight that has been around since the 13th century.
In Italy, “parmesan cheese” is typically not served in grated form, but instead is shaved from the wheel in paper -thin slices. The cheese is served regularly with Tuscan dishes, but there are times when adding it to a dish is frowned upon by the good folks of Tuscany.
Recently, I returned to one of my favorite restaurants in Tuscany, the Barilotto in Santa Fiora. This family- run operation is filled with all kinds of folks, from laborers to tourists. My favorite dish is the Tortelli Tartufi, a simple, but scrumptious pasta that I designate as manna from heaven. The tortelli is handmade and is filled with ricotta cheese and spinach. The truffle sauce that is generously ladled over the tortelli is over-the-top wonderful.
My tortelli arrived and I generously spread the Parmigiano-Reggiano over my plate from a community bowl of “parmesan” that was on the table. I was eager to taste the dish that I had missed for so long. Suddenly, the elderly owner came over screaming, with his hands flailing in the air, “No formaggio! No formaggio!” (“No cheese! No cheese!”) He swiftly took away the plate and I was left to stare at the empty space on the table in front of me. I had committed the ultimate culinary sin of adding Parmigiano-Reggiano to the absolute wrong dish. I was contrite and hung my head in shame. Mea culpa, mea culpa.....
I sat for what felt like ages, consoling myself with Tuscan bread slathered in olive oil. Oh, and also the house wine, which is good for consolation regarding most anything. It wasn’t long before I was served a fresh plate of tortelli, sans “parmesan” of course. In one swift move, the elderly owner sat the plate of tortelli in front of me with one hand, while removing the bowl of Parmigiano-Reggiano from the table with the other. He explained that the true taste of the truffles would be ruined by adding “parmesan”. He was right of course. The tortelli tasted like a dream come true.
Italians and especially, Tuscans, do not believe in bathing their food in condiments. They have a real appreciation for actually tasting the true flavor of any dish, served simply and unadulterated. Any additions, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, are used to enhance a dish, and only when the dish calls for enhancement. Seafood pastas and risottos are NEVER enhanced with parmesan cheese. Of course, neither is a dish containing truffles. I know that now. I was fortunate enough to get a second chance. I shall never commit the sin again.