Chestnut Honey and Parmigiano Reggiano

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews

One of my favorite desserts!

The Irish theologian John O’Donohue wrote, “The earth is full of thresholds where beauty awaits the wonder of our gaze.” This combination of “the King of Cheese” and terrific Tuscan honey is one of them! If you’re in the mood for a magically tasty, sweet-savory dessert, something you can put together in a matter of minutes, this could be it. This combination is so delicious that you might well find yourself making it your go-to after-dinner treat. Chunks of freshly broken Parmigiano Reggiano with a small bit of Italian chestnut honey drizzled over top. The bittersweetness of this very special chestnut honey from Tuscany, paired with the umami amazingness of the well-aged cheese, is so good it makes me smile even just writing about it here!

I’ve long been convinced that varietal honeys are one of the most underappreciated items in the artisan food world. The flavors are so interesting and different from one honey to the next. All natural, all good for you, delicious to eat, and no work involved other than opening the jar. I like to eat a spoonful of good honey before I head out to run every day. Chestnut honey is a particular favorite of mine (and also of Tammie’s). Very slightly smoky; a little more bitter than sweet; deep, dark, and mysterious. With a bit of burnt sugar in the finish, its complexity is beautifully out of sync with what many folks imagine when they think of honey. Maybe we could say it’s the well-aged bourbon of the honey world.

The Parmigiano Reggiano, with which you’ll be pairing it, is particularly terrific right now. (If you’re out shopping at the supermarket, please take note that “Parmigiano Reggiano” is not a brand name, but rather a Consorzio that specifies minimum quality standards. While all Parmigiano Reggiano will be pretty good, there are huge differences in quality from a base level to the best!) Here, we have two wonderful options for you to choose from at the Deli. Both are excellent, with its own character. If you’re entertaining or in the mood for a bit of culinary education, try doing a comparative tasting with both on the plate together.

Valserena—Located in the lowlands of the Po River Valley, Valserena is the oldest Parmigiano dairy in the Parma district. Currently run by the 5th generation—the Serra and Balduino families, both of Genoese origin, signed the papers to purchase it in 1879. It’s one of the few farmstead Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses still made—all the milk comes exclusively from the Serra family’s herd. They raise the animals, grow the feed, milk the animals and make the cheese right on the farm. Of particular note is the fact that their herd is made up exclusively of the rare and very special Sola Bruna (brown) cows. This old, originally of Swiss origin, breed makes up less than ½ of 1 percent of the country’s dairy cows. The cheese has a remarkable 40 months of maturing on it right now—most Parmigiano Reggiano is sold at 18-24 months—so these wheels are particularly special!

Roncadella—Made about an hour to the south of Valserena, the Roncadella really hits a beautiful bullseye—sweet, but not too sweet; salty but not too much so; pronounced and profound. And it’s the only Parmigiano Reggiano dairy with a woman master cheesemaker. Marisa Verzelloni retired last year so we’ll be gradually getting the final wheels of this wonderful cheese over the course of the coming months. Marisa’s cheese really is something special. Beautifully-balanced. A bit caramelly. Toasty. Creamy, but not too soft. Nicely aged, it has a tiny touch of spice on the palate. Really long finish. The wheels we have on hand right now are just shy of three years of maturing!

As I wrote in “A Taste of Zingerman’s Food Philosophy,”

The best cooking is a lot like leading a good organization. If you get great ingredients—i.e., people—together, get to know them, honor them for what they are, and use effective basic processes that let their personalities shine through, good things are likely to happen. In business, it can make for a healthy organization. In the kitchen, it might well just make for a delicious dinner!

Or, in this case, a world-class cheese course!