Ageing gracefully: How to get the best out of life's luxuries
Cheese, ham, balsamic vinegar and port are best appreciated when they've been afforded sufficient time in which to mature, writes Annabel Jackson
Delicacies such as lobster straight from the ocean, freshly shucked oysters or the first spears of white asparagus are at their best when fresh. Other gourmet items take time to reveal their personalities.
"Parmigiano should be eaten like chocolate," says Giorgio Cravero of G. Cravero, a family company that has been selecting and maturing Parmigiano-Reggiano since 1855. The cheese is made in Italy's Emilia-Romagna, where it is aged for 12 months.
Of the region's 390 producers, Cravero selects from just four, three of which are in the village of Benedello. "Terroir," Cravero says. "The local grass is very special. We look for 'soft and sweet' rather than the commercial 'hard, dry, sandy, spicy, piquant'."
His job is to bring the cheese to the next stage. At the family facility in Bra, birthplace of the "Slow Food" movement, the wheels are aged at 17 to 18 degrees Celsius and 70 per cent humidity for up to 24 months.
Robots flip the wheels every two weeks. During the summer they are also wiped, by hand. "During maturation, taste and texture change a lot," he says, "and wheels are at their peak at 24 to 30 months."
Aged Cheddars are also highly regarded. The ageing process is fairly simple: cheeses are placed on wooden boards, matured at a constant temperature and turned at least every two weeks. The turning ensures that moisture is distributed through the entire cheese. The wooden boards allow air to flow around the cheese more efficiently.
"The ageing process improves the cheese by allowing the paste to 'break down'," says James Rutter, an expert from London cheese specialist Neal's Yard Dairy who also works with Classified in Hong Kong. "This is a microbiological process, which allows the cheese to develop its flavour and texture."
Some people like to age their own cheese, leaving soft cheeses until they seem to be walking off the plate. Filippo Bencini, head of cheese and deli at Great Food Hall, doesn't agree with this practice, explaining that cheeses have already been aged before they reach store shelves.
Bencini hails from Parma and, besides having eaten Parmigiano since he was a baby, was brought up with Parma ham, estimating that about 11 million hams are produced each year in Italy.
As Bencini explains, the preparation of Parma ham (Prosciutto di Parma) requires little else than sea salt and fresh air. The little black pig used is the same as the one used in the production of Portuguese Pata Negra, and the first stage is to massage the meat with coarse sea salt. It is then kept in the refrigerator for a few weeks to absorb the salt and expel the water (it loses a third of its original weight during maturation).
Next, it is washed and covered with lard and ground black pepper. "It prevents flies," Bencini says. "Pepper is a natural chemical that insects don't like. And we need the fat to keep it moist." The meat is then hung in wooden huts where it dries in the salty sea air for a minimum of 12 months and up to 36 months.
In Asia, 12 months is popular "because it is not so salty", Bencini says. "But it is not ready. It is like young, raw meat - soft and springy." When ready, Parma ham should be tender, sweet and perfumed. Bencini recommends eating it with figs and melon.
Another famous ham is from Yunnan, the best of which is generally said to be from Xuanwei - where the family of Deng Xiaoping's wife is a key producer. In Yunnan, every family, or restaurant, matures its own hams, taking advantage of the clean and dry winter air.
The hams can be matured outside, hung from trees, but they are usually hung in part of the house. Some people hang them over the domestic stove, where they become lightly smoked. The hams become stronger in flavour as time passes and are consumed usually at 12 or a maximum 24 months. Yunnan cooks add small amounts of ham as a flavouring in all manner of dishes from hot-and-sour chicken soup to stir-fried foraged mushrooms.
Balsamic vinegar, a fashionable gourmet product, was relatively unknown outside Italy until a few decades ago. Today, it is a staple of trendy restaurants the world over. It originated in the culinary behemoth of Emilia-Romagna and dates back to the 11th century.
The name evolved from "balm" as it was believed to have health-giving properties. The vinegar is generally made from the white trebbiano grape and starts out as unfermented grape juice simmered for up to 30 hours, by which time it has turned into a sweet reduction (it loses half of its original volume). It is put into a barrel where its tangy, sweet-sour flavours develop further, and the consistency becomes like syrup. This ageing process takes a minimum of 12 years. Aged vinegars are also produced in a number of China's regions. But those from Shanxi province are the most highly regarded, and have a 3,000-year history.
They are sorghum-based, but also include wheat bran and barley. The base is brewed at a high temperature and then transferred to large, open urns. During the summer they are left in the sun, which concentrates flavours and aromas. Minimum ageing is one year, but some are aged for up to eight years. As in Italy, this aged vinegar is believed to have health-giving properties because, although vinegar is sour in taste, it is in fact alkaline and can help restore balance in the stomach.
Certain alcohols also develop with age - fine wine, Armagnac, single malts - and one of the greatest expressions of age occurs with vintage port during its transformation from adolescence to adulthood. "Vintage port is the very pinnacle of port," says Adrian Bridge, CEO of Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman. In the spring after the harvest, the batches are set aside and spend a second winter in large vats. Once bottled it continues to age, but now in the absence of oxygen.
"It begins to mellow out," Bridge says, "with the powerful blackcurrant and blackberry flavours becoming more subtle." With age, the colour fades and compounds fall out as a sediment, which is why old vintage port is always decanted.
The ageing of tawny port is a complete contrast. Again, in the spring after the harvest the best wines are selected and placed in 600-litre casks in an ageing lodge. Small casks make for a good deal of wood contact but these old casks do not impart flavour, rather they allow the port contact with oxygen.
This slow oxidation mellows the port, producing flavours of dried fruits , and rich honey and butterscotch notes. The port is then bottled as a 10-, 20-, 30- or 40-year-old, each of which has slightly different characters. The older the port, the more concentrated the flavours because the wood allows for three per cent evaporation per year, Bridge explains.
"A bottle of 40-year-old [port] will have started as the equivalent of four bottles in the cask 40 years earlier."