Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Living on Parmesan.

January 15

Today in 1622 was the birthday of the French playwright and actor Jean-Baptiste Molière. His health was poor in his last few years between 1667 and his death in 1673 and it is popularly believed that he subsisted almost entirely on Parmesan cheese during this time.

He could have done worse. Parmesan (or Parmigiano Reggiano) is a historic hard, dry cheese from a restricted and legally defined area of Northern Italy. The basic method of production has remained unchanged since the Middle Ages, because there is no need to mess with perfection. Sixteen litres of raw cow’s milk from grass-clover-lucerne-fed cows goes into the making of one kilo of the cheese. The real thing from the real country is termed grana, indicating that it is grainy or granular in texture, and has the words Parmigiano-Reggiano stamped all over the entire rind, so that even if you buy a small piece, you can tell it is the genuine article. It has been prized all over the known world for eight centuries.

Samuel Pepys appreciated it, and with the great fire of London approaching his home on September 4, 1666 saw fit to try to save his supply along with important documents and other valuables.

“…. And in the evening Sir W. Penn and I did dig another (pit) and put our wine in it, and I my parmazan cheese as well as my wine and some other things … Mrs. Turner …. and her husband supped with my wife and I at night in the office, upon a shoulder of mutton from the cook’s, without any napkin or anything, in a sad manner but were merry …”

Beware of imitations of this cheese – especially the pre-grated pre-packed version of ‘parmesan’-style, which may be fine and dandy for some purposes but don’t kid yourself it is close to the freshly grated real thing. And the real thing is far too good to be used merely as a pasta-topper. We far too rarely simply slice it thinly and dissolve it on the tongue, but if we do cook with it, there are other things to do with it than sprinkle it on the bolognese. We have had recipes in previous stories for Parmesan Cheese Ice-Cream (1830) and Macaroni with Parmesan (1769), so today I give you a parmesan-version of that other marriage made in heaven – cauliflower with cheese sauce - from Louis Eustache Ude’s The French Cook (1829).

Cauliflowers with Parmesan Cheese.
Prepare and dish the cauliflower as above*. Next mask the pieces with a little thick bechamelle, powder some rasped Parmesan cheese over them, and melt a little freshbutter, which pour gently in different places. Then strew them over with crumbs of bread and rasped cheese again, to which you give a fine colour with the salamander. Wipe the border of the dish, mix a little Parmesan cheese with some veloute and a little fresh butter, work the sauce, season it well, and pour it gently all round the cauliflower. If you should happen to have neither bechamelle nor any other sauce ready, a little melted butter with some glaze in it, will answer the same purpose; but it is more liable to turn to oil.

*to remove the snails or other insects, which are liable to creep towards the heart. For this purpose leave the cauliflower in cold water for an hour. Next throw it into boiling water, with a little salt and butter. This vegetable being very tender is soon done.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Funeral Bread.

Quotation for the Day …

“I live on good food, not fine words”. Jean-Baptiste Molière, Les Femmes Savants.


Anonymous said...

What is the 'salamander' mentioned? Is it saffron? (actually, come to think of it, whether it is or no, 'salamander' is a very expressive way to think of saffron)

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Rebecca. A salamander was a sort of hot metal plate that was held close to the dish to brown it on the top - a sort of portable grill idea.