The fabulous Bocca di Lupo has been one of my favourite restaurants in London since I had a spur-of-the-moment lunch there three years ago (click here). I’ve been back a few times since, with friends and for a family birthday celebration. And if I’m anywhere near, not necessarily wanting an actual meal, I can’t resist popping into their gelateria opposite, Gelupo (my Italian teacher, Fabio, who told me about it, and I regularly update ourselves on ‘best gelaterias’ in London and Gelupo remains our favourite). You can imagine, therefore, how delighted I was to be invited to a food event there last night by The Dialogue Agency. There were to be just 20 of us, eating a meal prepared by Bocca di Lupo’s Head Chef, Jake Simpson, and 1* Michelin chef, Isa Mazzocchi, from Ristorante La Palta in Piacenza.
The meal was part of The Culinary Project ‘Assi nella Manica’, which has been running a few events throughout the year to promote and celebrate Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Thus the entire 6-course meal was centred around these two products. First though, we were welcomed with some sparkling wine from the Bologna area, courtesy of Orsi Vigneto San Vito, who use traditional biodynamic methods in their vineyard. We’d drink more of their wines with our meal and owner Federico Orsi was there to talk to us about them before we sat down.
We also had short talks from Simone Ficarelli of Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano and someone from the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. And while we listened, samples came round for us to taste.
I have enough Italian friends to know that I really shouldn’t call my Parmigiano Reggiano, Parmesan. ‘Parmesan’ is a general name for this type of cheese but it may not be authentic. Parmigiano Reggiano is PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), a mark of quality granted to food products produced under strict production laws within a defined area. In the case of Parmigiano Reggiano, it may only be produced in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the west of the Reno River and Mantua to the east of the River Po. There are also strict regulations about what the cows who produce the milk for the cheese eat; they can only eat grass from the place of origin and natural animal feed. Some foodstuffs are strictly forbidden: any kind of silage or fermented food, and animal origin feed or any by-product of the food industry. The minimum maturation time is 12 months but it’s only considered to be at its best once it reaches the age of 24 months. Ageing can continue up to 36 months or more and during this time the taste, texture and digestibility will all change.
Last night we were given the chunks of different ages of Parmigiano to try, from 18 months, to 24 months and 30 months. Simone led us through the tasting: the young cheese was smooth and sweet, with little acidity and had a background taste of green grass; the 24 months cheese was more granular in texture, drier, stronger tasting and perfect for eating as it is or grating; the 30 months cheese had large crystals in the granulation, little notes of nutmeg and dried fruits in the taste, and was perfect for grating.
Next we tasted the balsamic vinegar. There were two – a 12-year vinegar and a 25-year vinegar. They were quite small – 100ml – bottles. Apparently the younger one sells for about £55 in London and the 25-year for £75. Yes, this is very expensive balsamic, not what you find on your supermarket shelves or even, probably, your local Italian deli. But it is the real thing. It was stressed that it should be served in drops, not drizzled extravagantly round food. Surprisingly the shape of the bottle was important: all traditional balsamic vinegar has to be sold in a particular shape of bottle. Aceto Balsamic Traditional di Modena PDO can only be produced in the province of Modena and it takes at minimum of 12 years to slowly acetify, becoming concentrated, mature and refined. All the vinegar produced has to be tasted and tested by a panel of expert tasters and may only be sold in the special 100ml bottles, each one numbered and sealed.
The taste – especially of the 25-year balsamic vinegar – was amazing. It may be exceptionally expensive but it really is quite a different specimen to the kind of balsamic most of us enjoy. I simply loved the taste of the older one – and there were bottles left on the table for us to help ourselves! Together with special little spoons to pour it into for the tasting.
We were reminded that balsamic vinegar is a condiment, not an ingredient. Apart from its use as a dressing for salads, it can be used as a finishing touch to hot food but only added at the end; you don’t cook with it. And try adding a few drops to strawberries and ice cream.
It was all fascinating and I learned a lot, but then it was time to eat, and here’s what we ate:
Crispy Parmigiano Reggiano PDO Scorzonera with Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale de Modena PDO
This was gorgeous: crispy Parmigiano Reggiano wrapped around some scorzonera – a kind of salsify – so soft and creamy inside.
Poached Egg on Parmigiano Reggiano PDO Cream & Crispy Tagliolini with Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDP
This looked so amazing and tasted wonderful: a softly poached egg sitting on a cream of the Parmigiano Reggiano and topped with crispy tagliolini (pasta).
Grilled Polenta with Porcini, Parmigiano Reggiano PDO & Cream
Another fabulous dish: this time a perfectly cooked porcini mushroom sat on a Parmigiano Reggiano cream and was served with grilled polenta. It was the kind of dish I would love as a supper dish in its own right, with a green salad on the side perhaps.
Raviolo di Ravioli with Parmigiano Reggiano PDO
This amazing looking raviolo is one of Isa’s specialities and quite famous. The rows of little ravioli within the one big raviolo contain Parmigiano Reggiano of 6 different ages, from 12 months to the rarely found age of 72 months (an exceptional treat). This really was a work of art as well as a glorious dish. It was extraordinary to experience the changing tastes as you made your way across the raviolo, the old Parmigiano intense and quite wonderful.
Roast Squab Stuffed with Delica Squash & Chestnuts; Treviso Radicchio & Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDO
This was another fantastic dish of a roasted squab – a small pigeon. It was served very, very rare and was gorgeously tender and tasty. I’d never eaten pigeon before and was worried it might be a bit gamey (I’m not fond of strong tasting game) but it wasn’t. We were told it was roasted quickly at a very high – 240C – temperature for just a few minutes, then some of the balsamic vinegar glazed over the top.
Vanilla Crème Brûlée with White Chocolate Cream & Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDO
Our final dish was the softest, most delicious crème brûlée I’ve ever had, topped with a white chocolate cream, some fruit and little ‘caviar’ of balsamic vinegar. What a great way to end a truly fabulous meal.
The two chefs came out to meet us at the end and received an enthusiastic round of applause from the roomful of happy diners.
What a wonderful evening it had been. A truly spectacular meal with lots of fascinating information about authentic Parmigiano Reggiano and Balsamic vinegar. It was also great to enjoy it with a group of like-minded food enthusiasts and be able to talk food throughout the meal! Many thanks to the Dialogue Agency for inviting me, the two fabulous chefs for their fantastic cooking, and all involved in this great event.