After a number of high profile, interesting events in and around London (including a summer lunch at Petersham Nurseries and a dinner at Bocca di Lupo), the culinary project known as The Perfect Italian pair concluded its run at Radio Alice, Italian pizzeria in Hoxton Square.
Sipping a wonderfully refreshing (and definitely a change from a prosecco!) sparkling white Sui Lieviti from Bologna, the evening started with learning about two Italian culinary excellencies: Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O. and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O.. As per previous events, representatives from the two consortia were present to guide us through tutored tasting of the cheese and the nectar (it seems absurd to call it vinegar, the literal translation from Italian).
Very often called ‘parmesan’ (more of a generic word for any Italian hard cheese to grate on pasta!), Parmigiano Reggiano is produced exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna, on the plains, hills and mountains enclosed between the rivers Po and Reno.
This is the area hosting four thousand farms where the cattle are fed on locally grown forage.
From these deep roots in a protected and respected environment, come the unique qualities, which characterise the “king of cheeses”.
Despite the fairly dark room and the noise coming from the downstairs area of the venue, it was fascinating to learn how the possibly most famous Italian cheese is made, the care it takes, the years required to mature and how to best appreciate its qualities, with our noses and our palates of course.
We tried bites of 18m, 24m and 30m aged Parmigiano; the best way to really appreciate is to pinch your nose and start munching, then release the nostrils…the full bodied aroma of the cheese will become even more pleasant and intense.
We then tasted two aceti, a 12 years and a 25 years, both rich, decadent and deep in flavour, beautifully rounded and completely different from what is commonly found in shops and dressings which is - not to be confused - the ‘simple’ Aceto Balsamico.
The traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena P.D.O is unique in the world of vinegar-based dressings obtained exclusively in the province of Modena from cooked grape-must. It is a rich, dark glossy color, its characteristic density is found in its correct, smooth flowing syrupiness. Ageing takes place in a series of small barrels made of different kinds of woods and having decreasing volume, usually kept in the attic of house.
Every year, using a special method of decanting, the smallest cask of the sequence provides a few litres of the product, while the reduction due to concentration is compensated for by the addition of cooked grape-must to largest cask. Only after at least 12 or 25 years of maturing does the product reach that surprising balance of aromas and flavour that allows it to bear the title of protected origin denomination (P.D.O.)
The Tradizionale is a wonderful addition to dishes, not an ingredient, as they explained to us on the night. It is a condiment and a stand alone dressing, and, especially in the case of the older type, goes well even with sweet dishes or fruit such as strawberries.
After the tastings, we were served three different pizzas, devised by chef Matteo Aloe, co-founder of Radio Alice. As a Neapolitan, I personally found the pizzas themselves more similar to a home baked version than what I’d normally expect from an authentic pizzeria but then again, Radio Alice spans from Berbere, a famous pizzeria in Bologna and not Naples. Not to say they were not good, the dough was well risen and seasoned but they felt more like a the support to showcase the Perfect Italian Pair than a main act.
Each pizza in fact, featured one half of the Perfect Italian Pair, showcasing their versatility in pairing them with some slightly unusual (for a pizza anyway) ingredients. It is fair to say that the flavours seem to divide opinions around us.
We found the Squash, Porcini, Fior di Latte and 24 months Parmigiano Reggiano the best as the sweet, soft vegetable really went well with the sharper, salty, aged Parmigiano and the fior di latte’s creaminess united everything really well.
Next to us, they preferred instead the pizza with Tomato, Lemon Zest, Black Peppercorn and 30 months Parmigiano Reggiano, we felt however that on this pizza the Parmigiano was the only ingredient that provided a detectable flavour, although the lemon zest added a touch of freshness.
Finally, on the other side of the table the pizza with Sautéed Radicchio, Taleggio, Fior di Latte and 12 years Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena was the winner; it was indeed a good match of flavours with the slightly bitter, dark coloured vegetable going hand in hand with the equally dark but sweet Aceto and again, it all came together with the two different cheeses, that provided more sweetness and consistency.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena was also served as a dressing to a bowl of vanilla ice cream, again the one half of the Perfect Italian Pair being the real start of the show, adding a touch of originality and a burst of intense flavour to the ice cream.
To ensure you buy the right product and not a fake, look out for the P.D.O. logo on the label.