11 August 2012

Will Work For Food

The idea of these sponsored "spokesperson" posts is, it seems, entirely appropriate. As any fule - and schoolboy - kno, the value of salt led to the word salary. The same applies, in a manner of speaking, to Prosciutto di San Daniele. While the preservation process involves salt,  like Grana Padano Cheese (below), the ham itself was considered of such high value it was often used as payment, for barter and as a valuable gift. Hey, who wouldn't want to unwrap what's in the pic on Christmas morning? 

The ten regions of Northern and Central Italy that produce the pigs is one of those happy places where the land suits pigs - and we all know how good happy pigs taste, right ham fans? - and the climate suits ham production. That was a discovery apparently made by the original Celtic settlers, and subsequently developed by the Romans in one of those happy co-productions. The San Daniele hills have reduced humidity, good aeration and a perfect climate in which to cure big lumps of the aformentioned happy pigs in salt. It then gets hung and cured for a minimum of 13 months. You can debate religion all you like, but if an area both suits pig contentment AND perfect preservation of meat, surely that's a higher power telling us not to be vegetarian? 

Anyway, philosophical debate aside, the length of maturation and the taste means that Prosciutto di San Daniele was considered to be of high value. When the municipality of San Daniele del Friuli became a fief of the Patriarch, Earl-Bishop and Imperial Elector, they received "corvees" (unpaid labour) in the form of ham for centuries. In the Thirteenth Century, San Daniele evolved into a "free commune" which meant handling the intrusions of an expanding Venice. You can probably guess how... Indeed, intervals of relative calm were bought partly by sending the Doge - the Ventian protector of the day - a suitable number of hams. 

There are many records of the hams playing a part in the country's political history. And now it's available in supermarket coolers. That's not quite as politically significant but makes it a lot easier for us proles to get hold of it... 

1 August 2012

The Joys of Excess

One day my fridge will look like this. Oh yes. My fridge WILL look like this... 
Necessity is, they say, the mother of invention. That’s probably true but happy accident probably plays its part too. Ditto boredom. I’ve often speculated how breakdancers discovered they could spin on their heads. Seriously, just how bored do you have to be to think “you know what I’m going to do today? I’m going to try spinning on my head and see if I can do it without breaking my neck.” I suppose it could have been a happy accident – if it was and you’ve got video evidence of that fall, I cannot say how much I would LOVE to see it – but I’m guessing boredom. Or an alcohol-fuelled bet.

But I digress. Yes. Again. Necessity has been behind a lot of great food. A need to get rid of eggs is what prompted the creation of the pastel de nata, those joyous little Portuguese custard tarts. And an excess of milk is how Grana Padano Cheese came about.

Back in my Neal’s Yard Dairy days, I often used to describe cheese as a milk storage system. Milk goes off quite quickly. Cheese – if looked after properly – lasts for months and, indeed, often improves. I always used to like the customers who would ask whether their piece of cheddar would last until next week. Er, it’s already two years old, another seven days probably isn’t going to make much difference.

Anyway, yes, more digression. Back to the Grana Padano (from, incidentally, a new secret stash my wife hasn’t discovered and demolished. Yet.) which, as you’ve probably guessed by now, came about when monks – in around 1000AD remarkably – were faced with an excess of milk. The earliest records suggest that it was the monks from the Abbey of Chiaravalle in 1135 who first made the cheese.

Again, to meander slightly off topic, can you even begin to imagine the efforts and potential frustrations of making an aged cheese? If you made a test batch of something Grana Padano cheese-like today, it’s going to be at least next April (or possibly even November 2013) before you discover if you’ve done it right. Sure you can taste it in progress but you’re working towards a date between nine and 16 months away. Maybe the need for patience is why it fell to the monks? It’s a theory anyway.

So, with time – and, I’m sure they’d argue, God – on their side, the cheese evolved into something really quite special. I could rattle on about the satisfying texture – its inherent graininess is why it’s called “Grana” – the mellow flavours, the umami hit, and all that sort of stuff, but the best way is to eat some yourself.  These days you can: back in the early days, Grana Padano Cheese became something a little more exclusive, being used as everything from currency to an asset to secure loan. I might try that one myself at RBS this week…