Parma ham is one of my favourite delicacies, so when invited to a ‘cook and dine’ event centred around this wonderful food I didn’t hesitate in letting the organisers know that I would be there!
A tube strike in full swing on the evening didn’t deter many and a warm welcome from the organisers, a glass or two of Prosecco along with nibbles of the wafer thin ham and small canapés soon made us forget about the struggle to reach the venue, the Underground Cookery School on the City Road near Old Street.
As there were quite a few participants we were divided into two groups, swapping over to make the dishes. Mine kicked off with the starter, destined to become fresh tagliatelle with black pepper, truffle oil, Parma ham and parmigiano reggiani. I was perhaps in the minority who had never made pasta from scratch before; but luckily sporting a complimentary Parma Ham apron I happily mixed the flour and egg while under the watchful eye of the chef in charge who added just a splash of olive oil to the mix; then I kneeded it until it reached the required consistency. This was an extremely effective way of dealing with the tensions of the day – all bakers should be very relaxed people! We were each in charge of our own pasta-making machine and following instructions, we started feeding the dough through it, again and again, reducing the number on the dial from 10 right down to 2 in order to reach the required thickness. Mini disasters of the dough falling apart were easily rectified by the chef sprinkling more flour on it. I think I might be more expert the next time! The machine incorporated a tagliatelle cutter, so the neat ribbons of pasta appeared in a trice; we then hung them out to dry on a washing airer, which I found to be quite novel, but very effective.
The groups swapped round and I now found myself faced with a chicken to dissect and bone until I was left with a boneless chicken breast. The very sharp knives provided had to be handled with great care but essential for the job. My rather neat piece of poultry was stuffed with a mixture of cream-cheese, onion and tarragon and then wrapped in Parma ham.
On to dessert, and after the chef had whipped up a mean meringue flavoured with lemon juice and vanilla I was given the honour (with the help of another participant) of spreading it smoothly on the baking sheet. A layer of strawberry-flavoured whipped cream was spread on top and we watched as the chef rolled it into an extremely professional-looking roulade.
We were then all invited to be seated at a long table where everyone chatted away happily. Soon our pasta starter arrived, followed by the chicken breast, succulent under its ham wrap and accompanied by a salad of new potatoes, spring onions and purple sprouting broccoli. The surprise came with the dessert, when we discovered that our lovely roulade had been top with candied Parma ham. In our leaving goody bag were all the recipes and I learnt that to make this, the ham had been placed on a baking sheet, covered with caster sugar and baked in the oven, then broken into shards when cool. I have to say that the delicate flavour of the ham was not quite so prominent here, but nevertheless quite delicious.
We all left, tired but well fed, with a souvenir apron, a booklet of tasty recipes, a folder with detailed information about the production and qualities of Parma ham, and, I’m happy to say, a small pack of superb ‘prosciutto di Parma’.
There are some mouthwatering recipes for Parma Ham on http://www.prosciuttodiparma.com/en_UK/home
Jeannette Nelson, Food writer
On a misty, damp December evening I found myself under the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, beautifully illuminated and rising majestically into the dark sky. I was searching out the prestigious cookery school, l’Atelier des Chefs, who were to host a ‘cook and dine’ event on behalf of the Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Gorgonzola (the Gorgonzola Cheese Consortium), founded in 1970. It turned out to be only a matter of yards away and I was given a warm Italian welcome of a glass of prosecco and an apron! A good start to an informative and enjoyable evening.
My fellow travellers were a convivial bunch and we chatted away awaiting the call to cook. I was to learn from them that I was far from the only one who, though aware of Gorgonzola cheese having eaten it from time to time, was rather ignorant of its status. Its production still follows centuries-old methods and since 1996 it has born the coveted DOP mark – denominazione de origine protetta (Protected Denomination of Origin). There are also two types: piccante (80 days cure) and dolce (50 days cure), the first of which was new to me as I was only familiar with the creamier, milder ‘sweet’ version.
Soon the busy prepping around in the cooking area had slowed down and we were invited to try our hand at the special recipes created by the chefs. (There are links to all of them below, so there’s no need to take notes!)
First up were mini pork burgers, topped with the cheese of course, served in a brioche bun and topped with caramelised pears. To call it a type of burger would have been a great injustice – MacDonalds couldn’t possibly dream up anything as flavoursome and succulent as this combination offered!
Next came the opportunity to make some pastillas, a samosa-shaped parcel of North African brick pastry (though filo can be substituted) filled with shredded butternut squash, shallots, herbs and a touch of gorgonzola). Delicious! In fact, all the recipes just needed a touch of the cheese as it really is quite powerful stuff, particularly the piccante version.
Then came a break from cooking with wonderful home-made ciabatta bread or roast potatoes to dip into a fondu made simply with gorgonzola (plus a small amount of gruyere to enhance the consistency), white wine and thyme.
More wine was also provided to help wash it down, along with some wonderful éclairs filled with the cheese and topped with honey, sunflower seeds and bacon bits – an interesting combination that worked very well.
Our final stint at a savoury dish was a flavoursome cut of beef, bavette, marinaded and then cooked rare and sliced thinly, served with sautéed purple sprouting broccoli and topped with a gorgonzola foam.
This last item was my only disappointment during the evening – it seemed to have lost the intense flavour of the cheese during the conversion to the foam, but I have to say that others were not of my opinion!
Another chance to mingle and chat, including the charming Luca who had come all the way from Northern Italy to represent the consortium. And then it was dessert time – not having a sweet tooth, and, in any case, being replete with the previous offerings, I could only watch as an interesting tiramisu was created (interestingly, with no addition of cheese); however, I did accept a marshmallow coated in chocolate from a flowing fountain that was very acceptable!
Before the evening I must admit that my image of gorgonzola was of a cheese somewhat dated, a throwback to the Seventies, along with prawn cocktails with marie-rose sauce and Black Forest gateau.
I left the venue, armed with factsheets, recipes, and a small piece of dolce with a greater appreciation of what is an extremely versatile and great cheese.
- Éclair stuffed with gorgonzola topped with honey, bacon bits and crushed sunflower seeds
- Fondue of gorgonzola, crusty bread and roasted potatoes
- Pastilla of Gorgonzola and butternut squash
- Bavette of beef with gorgonzola foam and sautéed purple spouting broccoli
- Pork and gorgonzola burger with caramelised pears
- Classic Tiramisu
- Dark Chocolat Fountain
Jeannette Nelson, Arts Critic A bit of a culture vulture, Jeannette enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.