I was very lucky to be invited to a bespoke dining experience at the wonderful Petersham Nurseries recently, to celebrate some of the finest P.D.O. products from the Emilia Romagna in Italy. The invite read… Renowned Head Chef at Petersham Nurseries, Damian Clisby, and Head Chef of Nido del Picchio, Daniele Repetti, have collaborated to create a menu with various dishes featuring the different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O. and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O. What a marvellous email to receive! I couldn’t possibly refuse.

Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, SW London, has been on my restaurant wish list for longer than I care to admit, especially as I have lived embarrassily nearby for many years. Nestled right on the edge of the beautiful Richmond Park, it comprises a homeware and garden shop as well as what must surely be the prettiest restaurant in London.

It really was the perfect setting for a fabulous feast of Parmigiano Reggiano D.P.O and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Modena D.P.O…the perfect Italian pair!

Both Parmiagiano Reggiano P.D.O and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O are produced in the Emilia Romagna Region of Italy and undergo an extensive ageing process, which allows time to develop their delicious flavours and unique characteristics. In order to ensure that both are produced using the traditional processing methods, they are safeguarded by a Consortium which ensures compliance with production specs. This way you are always guaranteed the quality you have come to expect.

As I excitedly entered the stunning greenhouse, (taking hundreds of photos as I did!), I was met with a tray of prosecco (always a good start) and admired the long tables adorned with beautiful pot plants and flower arrangements.

It was soon time to take our seats and be introduced to our hosts for the afternoon….(L-R) Renowned Head Chef at Petersham Nurseries, Damian Clisby, Andrea Galeotto, Director of the Consortium of Producers of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Head Chef of Nido del Picchio, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Italy, Daniele Repetti and Simone Ficarelli, the representative of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano.

Our tasting journey began with Simone explaining the story of Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O., while tasters of the 18 month, 24 month and 36 month were passed down the tables.

Known as ‘The King of Cheeses’, Parmiagiano Reggiano P.D.O, is one of the world’s oldest and richest cheeses and is still produced today as it was nine centuries ago. It is the only cheese that has an extensive maturation process, the minimum of which is at least 12 months. But it is truly at its best when it reaches approx. 24 months of age. Of course, the ageing can continue up to 35 months or more and as such, the flavour, texture and digestibility develops.

After 12 months, an expert from the Consortium examines each cheese wheel one by one. If a wheel passes inspection and meets the requirements of the P.D.O (Protected Designation of Origin), it is fire-branded with an oval mark that reads “Parmigiano Reggiano Consorzio Tutela”.

Simone explained that aside from milk, salt and rennit, there are no other additives…unless you include passion and time.

As we worked our way up through the ages, we discussed the differences in the texture, colour and taste of the cheese. We detected wider and more frequent crystals as the cheese aged. By the time we got to the 36 month taster, we noticed it was less elastic in texture and far crunchier. It wasn’t as salty as the younger ones and there were notes of dried fruit and an almondy tinge to it. It tasted more elegant if that makes sense? At 48 months the cheese was mellow, sweeter, with a taste of nutmeg and tropical fruit to it. It really was fascinating to taste and discuss them side by side.

We then moved onto the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O…

Andrea Galeotto explained that it takes at least 12 years to slowly acetify, beginning life with the grape harvest festival and then the boiling of the must in open vessels over open flames. It is then poured from one barrel to the next, all made with different woods. Once its been transferred from the biggest to the smallest barrel, it is left to rest in an attic. Over time it becomes more concentrated, mature and refined and after 12 years, a sample is taken and submitted to the expert tasters committee for approval. It is only sold in special 100ml bottle-cruets, created by Giugiaro Design, each one numbered and sealed (as above). Once it gets to the ripe old age of 25 years old, it can be named ‘Extra Old’.

We tried the 25 year first, on its own, which tasted almost like molasses. It was so punchy, so fruity, its like a party in your mouth. It is perfect as a finishing touch to meat and fish dishes, or drizzled onto ice cream and served with strawberries. And of course, drizzled over chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano.

We then tried the 12 year along with the 48 month Parmiagiano Reggiano P.D.O., which was utterly divine. It really is the perfect pairing. The luxurious intensity of the vinegar cut through the sweet, mellowness of the cheese perfectly.

Once the tasting was over, we had the privilege of a five-course lunch menu created for us by Damian and Daniel, featuring the different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O. and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O.

As Damian plated up the first course, he stressed the importance of heritage in cooking…“The way modern cooking is going, its easy to lose the simplicity, traditions and heritage of food. It’s important that we hang onto that.”

Our first course featured 24, 36 & 48 month Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O, spring vegetables, speck & a Haye Farm egg with 25 year old Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O. Extra Vecchio (by Damian Clisby).

Our second course was a 24 month Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O cheese terrine with herbs, asparagus tips and flowers with 12 year old Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O (by Daniele Repetti).

Next up was probably my favourite course… 24 month Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O cappelletti pasta in an asparagus, mushroom and seaweed broth (by Daniele Repetti). This hit all spots! The broth had so much depth and flavour, it actually tasted like the traditional chicken broth so I was amazed when I was reminded it was in fact vegetarian.

Our main course was Lamb cutlets, Artichoke alla Romana with 24 month Parmigiano Reggiano P.D.O and 12 year old Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O (by Damian Clisby). Even though I don’t really eat lamb, this was perfectly cooked and really delicious. I know meat lovers will think this is a sacrilege, but it was the Artichoke alla Romana that really stood out for me in this dish. I adore artichokes at the best of times, but stuffed with 24 month parmesan?? I’m in heaven.

By now I was truly stuffed, and almost contemplated skipping the final course…until I saw dessert being plated up and knew it would be rude not to have it.

Our final dish was coffee mousse, chocolate ganache, creamy cardamom milk, beetroot coral and green coffee meringue with 25 year old Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena P.D.O. Extra Vecchio (by Daniele Repetti). It was a delightful combination of flavours and textures. Rich, decandent and the perfect end to the perfect day.

And so, after 4 hours of non-stop eating, drinking and talking food, I headed home with a very full stomach, a head bursting with knowledge, and happy that I had met some lovely fellow food bloggers and writers. Thank you so much to The Dialogue Agency, The Culinary Project, Damian Clisby, Daniele Repetti and Petersham Nurseries for being such wonderful hosts.

The Perfect Italian Pair: @TheItalianPair

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