Welcome back to another post of Art of Food. Get ready for another exciting work of art to explore together.
Today’s work of art is a print called “Descrittione del Grande Paese de Cuccagna”. The artist is unknown and it’s from the XVII century.
This work is an interesting one, as what is portrayed does not exist in reality, although perhaps we wish it would. The “Paese di Cuccagna” is an imaginary place that has been included in many literary works. In this imaginary place, all of the landscapes are made of food, everything is abundant, not only food, but clothes, beauty and youth. In this place, work is not permitted, and there is no hierarchy.
The first literary work that explores this place is a Greek comedy by Ferrante from is from V B.C. This imaginary place, became even more popular during the middle ages. Because of the poverty and famish present in those times, this utopian place became part of literature and popular culture, so that people could at least dream of food, which was so abundant that you would eat it and explode.
My favorite version of the “Paese di Cuccagna” is the one described by Giovanni Boccaccio in the XIV century. In his novel Decameron, which narrates the story of a group of young people from Florence who to escape the black plague leave and camp out in a house in the countryside. Here, everyday, they recount stories, and in the 8th day one of the characters recounts the story of the “Paese di Bengodi”.
Here’s an excerpt from the Decameron describing this place: “They mostly abound in Berlinzone, near a city of the Baschi, in a country called Bengodi, in which the vines are tied with sausages, a goose is sold for a penny, and the goslings given into the bargain; where there is also a high mountain made of Parmesan grated cheese, whereon dwell people whose sole employ is to make macaroni and other dainties, boiling them with capon broth, and afterwards throwing them out to all who choose to catch them; and near to the mountain runs a river of white wine, the best that was ever drunk, and without one drop of water in it.
I love this description as I love to imagine to be in a place with a mountain made of cheese, especially my favorite, Parmigiano Reggiano where tortelli, and maccheroni are cooked on top and fall in summer salts on the mountain and get all cheesy. Seems like a pretty good place to live, doesn’t it?
This magical utopian place has been represented multiple times, by various artists throughout the centuries. You can see various versions on this blog, it’s in Italian, but you can find the artist and titles of the paintings.
Between the many paintings and representations, you can see details of some of the works on this link. This was an exhibition that took place in Milan two summers ago, during EXPO 2015.
I choose this particular version of the Paese di Cuccagna, first because I love antique maps, and second because the mountain of Parmigiano is at the center of this work.
The food I want to talk about today is Parmigiano-Reggiano. I grew up eating loads and loads of this delicious cheese, as it comes from the area of Italy where I’m from. What is interesting about Parmigiano Reggiano, is that is one of those Italian foods that is protected under the D.O.P, rule (di origine protetta, protected denomination of origin or P.D.O in english) meaning that Parmigiano Reggiano can be called only as such, if it comes from the land in between Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantova. Therefore if you are shopping and see that your product is called Parmesan Cheese, you know you are not getting the real deal, and that is probably something made somewhere else. Therefore if we were to produce Parmesan Cheese here in the U.S. we could call it Parmesan Cheese but not Parmigiano Reggiano. This article by the Italian Food import company Gustiamo explores this Parmesan Cheese name issue, it also includes a link to a larger article.
If you are interested in food-authenticity, quality issues, check out their other page “What we do not like” in which they group various food-quality issues happening with Italian food.
Parmigiano Reggiano is unique not only because of what I just explained, but because of the way it’s made, especially the aging and quality control process. This cool animated article by Nicholas Blechman from The New York Times, Opinion Pages Food Chains series explains everything there is to know about Parmigiano Reggiano. Check out the whole series, I find it super informational and entertaining!
Another good resource to learn about Parmigiano Reggiano is this guide from the cheese’ official website, here you can explore all you need to know to recognize the authentic Parmigiano Reggiano from the rind, to the color to the aging process.
Now that you know more about this amazing cheese, you can imagine why it is so beloved where it’s produced. Not only it’s portrayed in ancient maps, but its now at the center of a rotary in the town of Bibbiano in the province of Reggio Emilia. The big piece of cheese is made out of marble and weighs 40 tons, and is 3.5 m tall. The piece was placed on green grass, which represents what the cows eat, and next to a structure that reminds us of 1800s castles present in the area. Then finally to the side, the classic knife that is used to break the cheese off of the block.
Now that you are expert of Parmigiano Reggiano, it’s time to cook with some!
Here are a couple of recipes that I think use the ingredient to its full potential! I experimented the other night and made this amazing camomile, pear, Parmigiano Reggiano, shrimp risotto. I know it sounds like it’s a combination of crazy flavors, but the sweetness of seasonal pears, shrimp and camomile, balance out the savoriness of the Parmigiano Reggiano.
Here is how to make this wonderful dish:
Ingredients for two people:
- 1 cup of rice (Arborio or Carnaroli)
- 3 cups of steeped camomile
- 1 pear
- 10 shrimp
- Olive oil
- 1/2 onion
- Parmigiano Reggiano (Including the rind if you have it)
- Salt and Pepper
Put a little olive oil with some butter and onion to cook, until the onion becomes translucent. Add the rice and let it cook for 5 minutes, until it becomes crunchy. Now add half of the pear (diced), add a splash of white wine and let evaporate. Now start cooking the risotto, by adding some chamomile, it should be on low on a burner, little by little. Add camomile, when the rice looks like it has no more liquid, stir frequently. In the mean time on a flat skillet cook the shrimp, until is becomes a little crunchy and smoked on the outside, if you have a grill, this would be great to use. When te risotto is done, add some salt and pepper, grated Parmigiano Reggiano, a little butter and stir.
Now probably the most exciting part: it’s time to make the Parmigiano reggiano crisps.
These will be decorative for serving and also very delicious. On a plate put some grated Parmigiano Reggiano and press it in the shape of a circle. Cook for a couple of second on high in the microwave, until it turns golden. Now let it cool for a couple of seconds and then with a spatula remove from the plate, now it should be nice and crispy. Here is another method, I didn’t have any paper so I did it on the plate which worked just fine. If you have some Parmigiano Reggiano rind, which is perfectly edible, place a piece on a dish in the microwave on high for 50 seconds, this will allow it to crisp up. Once it’s out cut it with a knife into small crumbles (great way to use this ingredient to its full potential, no tossing of rinds!)
(The microwaved and crisped up piece of rind. Notice how you can still see the pin dot lettering saying Parmigiano Reggiano, this is a sign of authenticity)
Now it’s time to serve. Place the risotto on the bottom, then put a slice of pear and place a shrimp on top, and one of the crisps with a shrimp on top, and alternate. Then sprinkle on top the crumbled rind! Enjoy!
If you make it, let me know how it comes out! And remember…..it isn’t just a wheel..but a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano!