What is the best Parmigiano Reggiano in the world?

Parmigiano Vacche Rosso - the king of all Parmesan cheeses

Parmigiano Vacche Rosso – the king of all Parmesan cheeses

Parmigiano, or Parmesan , is the most famous of all the Grana (or hard, grainy) cheeses which are produced in northern and central Italy, and only grana that is made around the town of Parma can actually be called Parmigiano Reggiano.

The clue is in the name

Parmigiano Reggiano has been made in the region for at least 700 years, with traditional production methods passed down through the generations and up until World War II it came from Vacche Rosso, or Red cows, a breed also known as Reggiana and from which Parmigiano gets its name.  They are the original breed of cows native to northern Italy, known for their distinctive red coats – their milk has higher butterfat content and is particularly rich in calcium and protein.  It also possesses the best cheese making qualities as it coagulates quicker and makes a more consistent curd.  Once made into cheese it can be aged longer than regular parmigiano, and this all results in a great depth of flavour, with the cheese tasting creamier with intense nuttiness and grass notes.

Vacche Rosso - the Red Cow

Vacche Rosso – the Red Cow

As with many things, though, high quality means a naturally low yield, and sadly in recent times industrialisation meant they were slowly replaced by plain old black and white Friesian cows which were much more productive, yielding more milk.  By the early-1980’s the Reggiana were on the verge of extinction, with only 900 cows left.

Quality & consistency comes at a cost

Today there are around 600 caselli, or cheese producers, in the region whose cheeses are all periodically monitored as they mature by the Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano, the official group responsible for certifying quality of production.

In 1955 the consortium set down regulations governing how the cheese must be made. Today very few cows are out in pastures grazing – instead special grasses are grown and fed to them in the barns where they are confined.  And because the feed is the same for almost all the cows, the cheese is far more uniform than anything available before the regulations were set down.

Each and every Parmigiano wheel is tested for quality by the master grader

Each and every Parmigiano wheel is tested for quality by the master grader

After 12 months, a master grader from the Consorzio tests each and every cheese, using only a special little hammer and his ear. By tapping the wheel at various points, he can identify any undesirable cracks and voids within the wheel which mean the cheese will not mature properly.  Only the cheeses that pass the test are then fire branded on the rind with the Consorzio’s logo and have the right to be called Parmigiano Reggiano.

Fire branding the Consorzio's seal

Fire branding the Consorzio’s seal

While this raised standards, drove consistency, and got rid of the really poor cheeses, some would say it has got rid of the really great ones too.  The cheese has lost much of its artisan nature, in which, provided the base quality is there, natural variability can be celebrated.

Revival of the Vacche Rosso – the Red Cow

In the early 1980’s, however, a revival began amongst a few very small family run farms who recognised what was on the brink of being lost.  More concerned with quality than quantity they first stabilised and then, thanks in part to the Slow Food movement, grew the overall herd to 2,000 cattle today.

In the same way Parmigiano Reggiano is different to the more industrial Grana Padano, so Red Cow is the Rolls Royce of Parmigiano and this is recognised by the expression ‘Vacche rosse – razza reggiana’ which is fire-branded on their surface.  Annual production from the 38 farms adds up to only around 14,000 wheels of cheese each year, or 0.4% of total Parmigiano production.

Epicora’s Producer : Matteo Catellani

Matteo Catellani, 3rd generation Parmigiano producer

Matteo Catellani, 3rd generation Parmigiano producer – always with red cows

Matteo Catellani is a 3rd generation artisan farmer who now runs the farm started by his great grandfather in 1936 with a dozen cows.  His family have always only reared red cows, “Even when to breed these animals was mocked,” says Matteo, and in 1991 the Catellani brothers helped to lead the revival as founder members of the CVPARR – a dairy co-operative whose aim was to help save the breed.  Today he has 180 cows and continues to stand over the entire production and aging process to ensure the quality of every cheese.

.

Tasting Notes

Vacche Rosso is aged for a minimum 24 months to develop its unique flavour

Vacche Rosso is aged for a minimum 24 months to develop its unique flavour

Red Cow Parmigiano is generally aged for at least 24 months (compared to 12 months for regular Parmigiano Reggiano), with the best being aged for up to 36 or even longer.  The extra aging yields a cheese with a deeper straw colour than regular Parmigiano Parmesan.  The texture is creamier and its taste is intense – richer and longer than most Parmigianos, with uniquely nutty, fruity notes, and traces of wild grasses.

Keep your regular parmigiano for more everyday dishes like chicken parmesan.  Whilst Red Cow can still be used for grating and finishing a special pasta dish such as tagliolini al tartufo bianco it should not be overwhelmed, so try using as the main ingredient in a simple, but delicious parmigiano risotto, or best of all serve on its own, after a meal with a good glass of red wine and perhaps a little mostardo or top quality balsamic to match.

Once we tasted Red Cow Parmigiano, we had to have it in our range and we hope you will be as thrilled as we are once you have tried it too.

 

Artisan bread – fresh from St. John Bakery

Artisan bread made by St. John Bakery

We can’t think of many things as tantalising as the smell of fresh bread.  And by that we mean proper bread. Not those stodgy white baps the supermarkets ‘bake’ from a frozen lump of dough. No, we mean freshly baked goodness, crafted from pure ingredients by passionate people.

Real baking is a serious business and arguably the finest of the culinary arts. It takes years of experience to create the perfect loaf, not to mention some seriously anti-social working hours. Artisan bakers work very hard.

So when it came to sourcing bread for our market (www.epicora.com) we knew we had to find a Producer dedicated to their craft, and as fanatical about real baking as we are.

Our quest led us to St. John Bakery in Bermondsey, and we weren’t to be disappointed.

St. John Bakery is located on Druid Street, a gourmet destination a little down the road from Borough Market.  Their Saturday pop-up bakery is legendary amongst those in the know, and more or less kick started the area’s growing reputation for great artisan food.

St. John – Artisan bakers extraordinaire

We were met by Stephane Nerbonne the Bakery Manager, who talked us through the baking process with great enthusiasm.  There are two important features of artisan baking: what the bread is made from, and how it is made.

First, like all the best things in life the ingredients of proper bread are pretty simple.  The base mix is simply flour, water, salt, and yeast.  Of course additional ingredients are added to make different styles, but absolutely no chemicals.   Factory made bread includes chemicals ostensibly to boost shelf life, however properly made artisan bread can keep a shelf life, remain moist, and with a good crumb, for longer than you might think. Bread was made for centuries without chemicals, and there really is no need to add them now.

Second, real baking is tactile, a necessarily hands on approach to food making, and one that simply cannot be replicated by a factory production line. It also takes time, and the secret to St. John’s success is a slow fermentation over many hours – their sourdough takes 40 hours to prove!

The simplicity of their bread’s ingredients belies the care and attention required to create the perfect loaf.  Watching an artisan baker in full flow, applying years of experience, and making constant internal computations, is an almost magical process and a real privelige to witness.

St. John make their bread in small batches, small enough to allow the process to be managed start to finish (by hand) by one or two bakers.  This is the way bread used to be made, and although still somewhat rare, we are thankfully starting to see a resurgence in proper bread making (no doubt helped by the addictive Great British Bake Off).

Fresh from the oven, some of St. John’s fine artisan breads

We tried a great selection of St. John’s breads, and we particularly liked their White Sourdough – based on a mix of weak and strong flour it comes in a round shape, topped by a concentric floured circle.  Also notable is the Soda Loaf, a breakfast favourite and the Raisin Loaf, made with wet currants, and delicious toasted.

A St. John loaf is truly a thing of beauty.  Real bread is isn’t one of life’s luxuries; it’s one of life’s necessities. Before the days of factory produced pap and supermarkets everyone ate real bread, and hopefully one day we will again.  In the meantime, you’ll be able to get your hands on St. John’s delicious produce through our market. Fresh and versatile we know you’ll love their hand made bread.

Check out our updated website (www.epicora.com) and don’t forget to enter our prize draw to win an artisan box stuffed full of goodies. Stay tuned, as we launch very soon!

Team Epicora

Artisan honey, the way nature intended

photo(4)

A happy home for bees

Today is a good day for bees.  The sun is shining, the air is still, and the recently blossomed apple orchard couldn’t be more inviting. Perfect conditions for this army of busy insects to get down to what they do best – making delicious Kentish honey.

Half hidden in idyllic countryside near the rather pleasant town of Hythe, this is just one of several apiaries spread across East Kent – owned and tended by Chris of CBs Bees.

Straight from the hive - Chris with honeycomb

Straight from the hive – Chris with honeycomb

Chris is an artisan beekeeper, looking after bees the traditional way – letting them make their amber nectar the way nature intended.  He produces small batches of unadulterated honey with real provenance – his honey is quite literally a taste of the ‘Garden of England.’  His best selling Spring honey, which the bees are currently working hard producing, is largely based on Oil Seed Rape, which produces a white coloured honey with a distinctive but mild flavour.  For his Summer honey the bees collect nectar from a wide variety of blossoms leading to a darker colour and multi-layered flavouring.  But ultimately every batch is different – dependent on the flowers, trees, and crops, favoured by the bees at the time.

The hive

The hive

Chris’ honey is pure stuff – and couldn’t be further from the generic gloop produced for supermarkets.  His production process is simple and small scale, meaning one batch can contain the contents of just one hive. This ‘light-touch’ process means the honey you find in your jar is as close to its natural state as possible.

More to the point it is raw. Unlike supermarket honey it isn’t pasteurised at high temperature, ensuring it retains it natural enzymes and in turn its healthy benefits.

Raw honey is an  ancient food stuff and has long been linked to many health benefits, from promoting digestive health, to pain relief, to blood pressure control, and even topical wound healing. Above all though, it is a delicious and natural way to get vital nutrients and vitamins.

Chris tending to his Kentish bees

Chris tending to his Kentish bees

The humble bee has had a hard time of late. Farming practices, habitat destruction, and some pretty nasty parasites, have been linked to the collapse of colonies across the country.  They need our help – and the best way to do that is to eat proper honey.

Raw artisan honey is one of life’s great delights and Chris’ is amongst the finest we’ve tasted. We’re looking forward to showcasing his talents and sharing his great produce with you.

Team Epicora

RAF Smokery

Originally built in the 1940’s RAF Bottisham’s first life was playing a key part of the war effort, a home for a variety of aircraft including Tiger Moths, Tomahawks and Mustangs.  Nowadays things are somewhat quieter as the site has been transformed into one of the country’s best Smokeries serving a long list of restaurants (including the local 2 Michelin starred Midsummer House) with a delicious range of smoked goods.

Wet curing salmon at the River Farm Smokery

They’ve been smoking fish, meat and game here for 35 years and I meet  Chris Swales, the current head honcho, as he is preparing the next batch of duck and salmon for the kiln.  Originally a teacher, Chris has spent the last few years both perfecting his art & building partnerships with the very best raw ingredient suppliers.

duck salmon oven

Smoking Barbary Duck and Freedom Food Scottish Salmon

The first stage of production for his salmon is a wet cure for 7 hrs to draw out the moisture from the fish and start building that delicate flavour, and as he turns the fillets he explains that it’s that combination of the best ingredients, attention to detail and a lot of time that makes his produce really special.

The next stage is to move the fish to the smoker, where they will be cold smoked for 12 hours, and this is where the magic really happens.  Chris takes me through to the kiln room, filled with the rich, sweet aroma of woodsmoke.  He shows me the oak used for the kilns – sourced exclusively from Germany’s Black Forest and then pulls open the door to the smoker to reveal the next batch of duck and salmon in mid smoke.

The magic happens…

Inside another kiln – 35 years of smoke

The finished article

Noted in Leith’s Fish Bible and featured in the Great British Menu by invitation of Midsummer House’s Daniel Clifford (excerpt below), the River Farm Smokery really is something special, and its not just fish. Chris has experimented over the years and produces a full range of fantastic produce including hot smoked, just pink, Barbary duck breasts and his personal favourite, smoked wild pigeon breasts – perfect in a salad with a drizzle of best olive oil and dash of raspberry or blackcurrant vinegar.

Its a simple process, but there is high art in this alchemy & now I know what makes this place special – small batches, made from the best raw ingredients, handcrafted by a true artisan.

Team Epicora

The Islington Job – incredible Italian salami made in London

Image

Italian salami – London style

The smell hits us immediately. As we cross the threshold we are enveloped by a pungent fug of cured meat and seasoning.  This is the whiff of real food production. Unapologetic and raw – and no place for the vegetarian.

Welcome to Picco Salumi, a new London based producer curing meats the Italian way. Managed by 3 passionate chaps (Adam, and the 2 Matts), this is just the type of business we like – making real food in small batches, using proper ingredients and authentic methods. But there is a twist – their delicious products are made from 100% free range, highest quality British meat. Their short supply chain means this meat can be traced back to happy pigs and cows from some of the best British farms. Just the way it should be.

In Britain we do a mean sausage, and we should be rightfully proud of our butchery heritage. Yet we never developed the finer arts of European charcuterie. Picco are seeking to change this. At the leading edge of a new wave of British meat curing, they’re on a mission to produce products to rival the best Italy has to offer. For our money, we think they have more than achieved that.

The whole production process takes place within their tiny Islington HQ – from carcass to maturation.  The guys butcher everything by hand, ensuring only the best cuts meet the erm..cut.  You won’t find any gristle here.  Once ready the meat is seasoned (dependent on the salami of the day) using freshly ground herbs and spices, and is stuffed and tied.  The meat is packed tightly within cases (only natural beef casings – British of course) to eradicate air.

Image

Adam at work

Then the all important aging process begins. As with artisan cheese the conditions (particularly temperature and humidity) must be just right.  The salumi are hung for 5-7 days, initiating the fermentation process. It is at this point the salumi begin to grow their distinctive white bloom, adding flavour and protecting the meat as it cures.  Finally the salumi are left to slowly ferment in the maturation room -row upon row hung by string. Different varieties require shorter or longer periods to reach perfection.

Image

Salumi developing the distinctive white bloom

Picco make a range of products, all of which we were lucky enough to try.  All are truly excellent, achieving a rare balance of delicious cured meat flavours and delicate seasoning. The expanding range includes Rolled Pancetta (pork belly, black pepper and herbs), Filone (pork fillet, paprika and mace), and Coppa (pork collar, red wine, and spices). However we were really taken aback by the confit style Salame Sotto Grasso (pork leg, mulled wine, smothered in lard!) and the delicious Finocchiona (pork and fennel).

Image

A carnivore’s delight

Picco are a real find. They’re a passionate bunch, making adventurous food without compromise.  We think they will go a long way – their small but growing band of dedicated followers are testament to this.  As ambitious small producers, they live and breathe Epicora’s values and we can’t wait to offer you some of their very fine products.

Team Epicora

It’s olive oil…but not as we know it

Image

Line ’em up – Epicora meets The Oil Merchant

We love our job….one of the joys of sourcing artisan food is meeting the people behind some truly beautiful products. This week we had a good chat with the folks at The Oil Merchant, who have spent nearly 30 years tirelessly importing incredible Estate Bottled Olive Oils, Balsamic and Wine Vinegars and other such delights from around the world. Stuff with real provenance!

It’s no stretch to compare fine olive oils to fine wines. Terroir (or a sense of place) applies equally well to the olive as it does the grape. Unique characteristics are imparted – from the geography, geology, and climate of the place in which it is grown.  Artisan makers work hard to cultivate their own varieties, press them at the right moment, and use time honoured methods to produce unique and versatile flavours.

Among the various delights sampled by Epicora, we discovered a rather interesting Estate Bottled Oil made from slightly dried olives, but with a surprising and intense taste of black olives. We’ve never tasted anything quite like it – and think it will be great for dressings or as a drizzle for your potatoes.

Like fine wines there are oils for all occasions – offering an abundance of different flavours.

Look out for some superb small batch oils in our first selection of Epicora boxes.

Register your interest at http://www.epicora.com!

Team Epicora

Our first blog….Epicora is coming soon!

Breaking news from Epicora HQ!

We’re almost ready to open our doors, and can’t wait to bring you our first selection of box offers stuffed full of incredible artisan foods.

We have been locked in a dark room building our brand new online service for lovers of great food, and have been working closely with some truly inspirational small producers and suppliers.

Our mission is simple.  We want to make it easy for you to discover fantastic ingredients and flavours, while supporting dedicated and talented small producers around the world.

We’re going to bring you some tantalising offers. Prepare to get your hands on great seasonal, unusual, and simply stunning small batch produce – and all from the comfort of home.

Watch this space, and in the meantime please visit www.epicora.com to register your interest!

Team Epicora