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We like to think that behind any dish whatsoever, there is always a historical and geographical story to tell. There are some culinary inventions, however, that do not simply narrate a story but go much further. Those that go beyond time and ephemeral trends and which, once introduced, will never be taken off the menu.
Similarly to a fashion stylist’s dress, the brushstroke of an artist or the phrasing of a novelist, there are dishes that carry the signature of an entire reality, fragments of imagination, distilled drops of experience, the voices of a population, clods of earth.
The earth involved here is that of Modena, the chef is Massimo Bottura and the dish is called Cinque età del Parmigiano Reggiano in diverse consistenze e temperature (The five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese).
«In my more recent dishes, I have tried to interpret this ingredient in such a way as to demonstrate that there are many ways to use it apart from grated. Parmigiano Reggiano DOP must be understood and appreciated according to its age and the use we wish to make of it», says Bottura.
The experience he offers us is a dish made up of a demi-soufflé made from Parmigiano that has aged 24 months; a mousse containing a mature product of 30 months; a liquid cream incorporating a product aged 36 months; a crisp wafer produced from a Parmigiano aged 40 months; and to top it all a “breath of air” deriving from a broth of Parmigiano rind taken from a special product that has undergone an ageing process of no less than 50 months.
The conceptual revolution of this dish consists in the transformation of what is apparently one single commodity deeply rooted in the area of Modena - Parmigiano Reggiano that is - into five different ingredients. Technology shapes the material in various ways, to caress the palate in alternating sensations of hot, cold and warm as well a creamy, soft and crisp.
The complexity of this dish and, in particular, the order in which the various elements are composed and presented to the palate, lead to different perceptions, making the gastronomic experience of Le età del Parmigiano quite unique on each occasion.
If the demi-soufflè is the first to be tasted, the palate relaxes to concentrate on its rich creaminess. However, if the wafer leads the way, the taste buds will spring to life, stimulated by its crisp consistency. The element of “air” must be experienced last: it looks like the white froth on a cappuccino but even lighter, more delicate and not so dense. Its apparent innocence is deceptive since it actually represents the quintessence of Parmigiano. The intensity deriving from its 50 months ageing process will linger with you for several minutes after tasting it.
The keyword of this dish is “time”: partly because time is essential to allow the basic ingredient to reach its perfect stage of maturation and also because of the age of this dish – 13 years - created by Bottura in 1998 when very few chefs had yet realized that an ingredient is principally made up of molecules. In 2002 Le età del Parmigiano was further enhanced by the addition of “air” and still maintains its extraordinary modernity today: Its evocative power becomes a respectful culinary reference to the French and Spanish lesson, built on Italian columns. In one hundred years from now, it will be tradition.
Perhaps this description should start from history, from the Parmigiano which, way back in the Middle Ages, used to be produced in the Po valley by Cistercian monks in the form of large wheels of cheese that could be easily stored but, above all, might help sustain pilgrims on their long journeys.
Perhaps this story should begin from the cattle breeds Bianca Modenese, Pezzata Rossa and Reggiana and the dauntless cheese-makers who allocate their limited production to the Osteria Francescana. Without them Le Cinque età del Parmigiano would not exist.
Photo by Paolo Terzi, Modena