August 15, 2005
Let's talk about Parmigiano (not Parmesan)
Let's talk about Parmigiano.
Note — I did not say "Parmesan."
I've always been a bit puzzled about why the price of "Parmesan" cheese varies so much, at some stores twice or more the price it sells for at others.
I knew there were different grades of the wonderful cheese, considered by most connoisseurs one of the world's very greatest, but I decided to have my crack research team dig a bit deeper.
They started with this entry from the New Food Lover's Companion, 2nd Ed. (1995), by Sharon Tyler Herbst:
- Parmesan Cheese
[PAHR-muh-zahn] This hard, dry cheese is made from skimmed or partially skimmed cow's milk.
It has a hard, pale-golden rind and a straw-colored interior with a rich, sharp flavor.
There are Parmesan cheeses made in Argentina, Australia and the United States, but none compares with Italy's preeminent Parmigiano-Reggiano, with its granular texture that melts in the mouth.
Whereas the U.S. renditions are aged 14 months, Parmigiano-Reggianos are more often aged 2 years.
Those labeled stravecchio have been aged 3 years, while stravecchiones are 4 years old.
Their complex flavor and extremely granular texture are a result of the long aging.
The words Parmigiano-Reggiano stenciled on the rind mean that the cheese was produced in the areas of Bologna, Mantua, Modena or Parma (from which the name of this cheese originated).
Parmesans are primarily used for grating and in Italy are termed grana, meaning "grain" and referring to their granular textures.
Both domestic and imported Parmesans are available in specialty cheese stores, Italian markets and many supermarkets.
Note that only cheese stamped with the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium's official stamp can be called Parmigiano Reggiano.
Anyone can call their cheese Parmesan but if it's not from Italy, don't bother — Argentine, Australian and American producers will kindly leave now.
First, a very informative post from Delia about her trip to Emilio–Romagna, the home of Parmigiano Reggiano.
She notes that the cheese is the product of some 900 small cheesemakers scattered around the Po Valley.
The milk from their cows is so valuable that not one drop is consumed: the locals import their drinking supply from Bulgaria.
About eight gallons of milk are required to make one pound of cheese.
The consortium of producers was formed in 1934.
The strictly controlled production comes from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua on the right bank of the Po River, and Bologna on the left bank of the Reno as of a 1955 law clearly defining the region's boundaries.
I love that precise delineation of which riverbank is in and which out. But I digress.
Delia notes, among the many fascinating facts in her article, that the diarist Samual Pepys, during the Great Fire of London, thought his Parmigiano Reggiano so precious that he dug a hole and buried it to preserve it from the flames.
Now that's passion.
Then go here.
This is in English and offers more background.
Here is the official website of the consortium.
It is the single best source in the world for information about this exquisite cheese.
But before we go shopping, take a moment to read this article from the October 31, 2004 issue of Wine Spectator magazine by Sam Gugino, one of the magazine's long–time columnists.
He points out that older is not necessarily better when it comes to Parmigiano Reggiano and quotes cheesemonger Luigi DiPalo, owner of DiPalo's Fine Foods, one of New York City's premier cheese shops, who says, "Americans think older is better. It's a snobby thing. The real prime for Parmigiano is two to three years."
Gugino noted that he once tried an 8–year–old Parmigiano but was reminded of a great wine that was "past its prime but still showed interesting qualities."
He also offers the useful tip that every single wheel of Parmigiano has the date it was made stamped on the outside.
I'm gonna check this out next time I'm at Whole Foods.
Gugino writes that many cheese merchants deal only with certain farms that make their own cheese, akin to an estate wine.
Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts gets its Parmigiano solely from the Bonati family in Parma.
Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan sells Parmigiano from the Poggio Castro farm in Modena.
There's more to learn.
Some stores sell their Parmigiano by the season in which it's made.
Fall Parmigianos have the highest butterfat content, making them the richest tasting.
Gee, Joe, that's great, but I'm really getting hungry — where can I get the real thing?
I thought you'd never ask.
It's time to go shopping.
Crack research team: hit the web.
We start with Williams–Sonoma, which offers a 2.5 lb. wedge for $49.50, about $20/lb.
Then there's this site, offering "the best Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy."
The cheese is "aged a minimum of 24 months" and costs $22 a pound.
But almost all Parmigiano Reggiano is aged a minimum of 24 months so what's the big deal?
No, we want something better after all this.
We start to move into more artisanal versions of the cheese forthwith.
For example, Vacche Rosse (Red Cow) Parmigiano (below).
Up until the post World War II era the Reggiana — a cow with a striking red coat — was the main breed of cow in the province of Reggio Emilia.
In recent more recent times it has been largely replaced by higher–yielding black and white cows whose milk has a lower butterfat content and fewer proteins.
However, the Reggiana breed has been reinvigorated in the past few years and now is used for production of small, specially labeled quantities of Vacche Rosse Parmigiano.
The higher butterfat content allows for the production of a cheese that is better suited for a longer period of aging, requiring a minimum of 30 months.
Its taste is said to be richer and texture creamier than most Parmagianos even though this seems counterintuitive since it has been aged longer.
$12.99 for one–half pound here. (Scroll down about two–thirds of the way.)
Note: this website, that of iGourmet.com, is superb: informative, detailed, visually appealing.
I bet they move a lot of cheese.
They're offering their single maker Parmigiano from the Poggio Castro farm in Modena for $23 a pound.
An aside regarding Zingerman's: after reading about this legendary food mecca for many years, I finally made it there in the early 90s.
I was less than impressed.
Sort of dumpy inside, chaotic, disorganized, it wasn't at all a pleasant environment.
What was on display didn't look all that great, either in presentation or variety.
I suppose considering the next closest epicurean palace is in Chicago, Zingerman's is an apotheosis of sorts for those in the vicinity but me, I'll take Dean & DeLuca any day of the week if I want wonderful high–end food.
Their Parmigiano is "produced for us by a 100–year–old Reggiano cheesemaker" and costs $42 for a two pound wedge.
They throw in a Parmigiano knife (below) as well.
It's a special knife designed to break the cheese into chunks and nuggets rather than cut it in order to preserve its texture and present as much surface area as possible.
I've had one for many years and like it very much; it has a nice feel in the hand.
You can get one here for $7.99. (Scroll about three–quarters of the way down.)
I've saved the best for last.
For those of you who haven't already abandoned me.
From Formaggio Kitchen, mentioned above in the Wine Spectator article, comes, as heralded, Parmigiano Reggiano Bonati–Riserva Speciale from Parma.
- From the Formaggio Kitchen website:
We carefully tracked the farms and the seasons of Parmigianos to find the single best, and nothing has surpassed the reggiano produced by the Bonati farms.
The "riserva special" is the finest parmigiano available in this country.
We cut the huge wheels with traditional tools.
Aged 3 years.
$25.95 a pound here. (Scroll about half–way down the page.)
The same store also offers another artisanal Parmigiano: Reggiano Cravero.
"For five generations the Cravero family has been hand-selecting young wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano from the finest farms of Emilia-Romagna and transporting them to their maturation caves in Bra, a mountain village in central Piedmont. An FK Exclusive."
$20.95 a pound here. (Scroll about half–way down the page.)
Formaggio Kitchen has been in Cambridge, Massachusetts for over 20 years.
The store has been named the best cheese shop in Boston by both Bostonian magazine and The Improper Bostonian which, along with the fact that they offer not one but two artisanal Parmigianos, is good enough for me.
I'm ordering from them.
Pulling the plug on dysfunctional hotel alarm clocks
Today's USA Today story by Roger Yu about how hotels are dumbing down their alarm clocks called to mind last fall's post here about travel alarms.
Long ago I abandoned wake–up calls and hotel alarm clocks in favor of bringing my own.
The first thing I do after I arrive in a hotel room is unplug the alarm clock and tip it back behind the nightstand so I don't have to look at its useless, dysfunctional–even–when–working–as–it's–supposed–to corpse.
My current iteration is pictured above and below: it's the Oregon Scientific model AS316NE-S Nightfinder and costs $13.95 here.
I wrote about it last year on September 13 and you can read that post here if you want the juicy details.
Suffice it to say that Kevin Kelly even liked it enough to feature it in Cool Tools so you know it's not just me blowing smoke and hot air as usual.
Bonus: the Cool Tools review told the amusing story of one of my favorite self–inflicted personal disasters. But I digress.
You shouldn't have to wonder if your alarm clock will work: I mean, this isn't a computer — it's a clock.
Yet most models in hotel rooms, as Yu notes in his story, don't show you the time for which you've set your alarm or, in an obvious fashion, whether or not it's armed.
So you repeatedly check it as is your semi–compulsive wont, disrupting your relaxation the night before an important presentation or case or what–have–you.
Some people have even been known to wake up in a cold sweat wondering whether or not they forgot to set their alarm clock.
Know anyone like that?
You don't say — good thing you can trust me not to tell.
First rule of alarm clock design: if you are required to press two buttons at one time to do something then that clock is poorly designed and will bite back and fail you when you can least afford it.
Like when your flight out is the only one that can get you home that day and you sleep through the alarm that never was.
Relying on a hotel alarm clock or a wake–up call from the front desk is like expecting decent food on a plane trip: ain't gonna happen.
You do it yourself if you want it done right.
Mom's moved on.
In the end, you're the only one who cares.
Trust me on this; I've learned this lesson via way too many personal disasters.
No reason you should have to reinvent the wheel: after all, that's why you're paying me the outlandish price I'm charging for my advice.
And, as always, it's worth every red cent.
The Notebooks of Richard Foreman
Richard Foreman (above) is an experimental playwright and director in New York.
Since 2000 he has made the entire contents of his notebooks available online and free of charge to anyone in the world.
You can view them, download them, put them onstage, rearrange, edit, or add to his words: he does not care.
In this respect Foreman and I are identical: do what you want with what you find on bookofjoe.
He told Jason Zinoman of the New York Times, for a story published in this past Sunday's paper, "I can imagine that people are doing things that I would despise. But that's my business. Why should I subject myself to it?"
I like it.
Foreman said, "I like to think of the notebooks as a pool of raw material. I make plays out of it, so why can't other people? I just identify with this idea that I'm a funnel for this material that doesn't particularly belong to me."
Here's the website containing Foreman's notebooks.
Go to the right hand column and click on the words "notebook texts."
My nominee for the strangest candy of the year.
"Yummy lollipops with a mini Etch-A–Sketch on one end."
Like the website says: "Doodle while you drool!"
Thank you: I think I will.
$39.60 for a dozen here.
Perhaps the world's coolest party or cocktail hour favors.
Where does he find this stuff?
I don't know — and I don't want to know.
'The subject matter varies but the governing sensibility remains consistent'
I like it.
But I didn't come up with it.
Rather, it's a quotation from David Honigmann's most interesting "Brain Waves" column appearing in last Wednesday's Financial Times.
He began by noting that the previous week he'd received the seventh issue of the magazine Fourth Door Review (above).
He finished that introductory sentence by noting that the first issue came out in 1996 — nine years ago.
He pointed out that he'd waited 22 months for part two of a two–part interview with sculptor Andy Goldsworthy that began in issue six, circa mid–2003.
And consider that the second issue was termed "Double Issue 2/3," such that there have been an actual total of six issues since its inception.
Among the subjects of the magazine's stories: the design of Aleutian Island skinboats; the music of Jan Garbarek; sound installations at Oslo airport; timber–framed buildings in Sussex; Norwegian jazz; the architecture of cancer care homes; the nature of consciousness.
I think it's time I subscribed, don't you?
Here's Honigmann's piece.
- A matter of personal choice
The cultural magazine Fourth Door Review reached its seventh issue a week or so ago, a mere nine years after its debut.
The new issue carries the second part of a lengthy interview-with-cum-essay-about Andy Goldsworthy (the first part was in issue six, some 22 months ago, cruel tenterhooks on which to leave readers), a series on the architecture of cancer care homes, and pieces on the design of Aleutian Island skinboats and the music of Jan Garbarek.
It is hard to define precisely why someone interested in hospital architecture should also want to read seven pages on Norwegian jazz or hermetic articles about consciousness.
One link is what Glenn Gould called "The Idea Of North": where most stylish magazines are obsessed with New York, California and Tokyo, Fourth Door Review (www.fourthdoor.co.uk) covers sound installations at Oslo airport or timber-framed buildings in Sussex.
It is defiantly non-metropolitan.
The linking thread, of course, is that the magazine's editor, Oliver Lowenstein, is interested in all these things and has the courage to assert that his readers will find themselves similarly fascinated.
Magazines fall into three categories.
Mass market general interest magazines are focus-grouped and market-tested to within an inch of their lives: Easy Living is hard work. Specialist interest magazines, whether on railways or patchwork or folk music, also know their audiences and their subjects intimately.
Fourth Door Review falls into a more nebulous category, one where the subject matter varies but the governing sensibility remains consistent.
Resurgence under Satish Kumar pulls off the same trick.
So does the Minnesota-based Utne Magazine - named, revealingly, for its founder - when it succeeds in balancing the thought-provoking and the trivial.
The late, lamented Whole Earth Review, the archetype of many of these publications, carried its founder Stewart Brand's planet-sized curiosity through several strong-minded successors as editor, from Art Kleiner to Kevin Kelly to Howard Rheingold.
The Idler, when it is not veering between sloth and belligerence, combines the same mixture of culture and how best to live one's life.
The internet plays artificial versions of the same trick.
Shop at Amazon or any of its tributaries, and you will receive recommendations for other products.
In the site's early days, I used it to find American books otherwise unavailable in the UK, including a wedge of children's titles, which skewed my profile.
But its recommendations for other books I might enjoy (discounting the endless variations on Goodnight Moon) were always eerily spot on.
Then it began to offer music as well.
Before I had bought a single CD from it, the site started to offer recommendations based on the books I liked: Billy Bragg's Woody Guthrie covers, it proposed confidently.
Maybe some Richard Thompson. Perhaps the new Baaba Maal.
Again, spot on.
But at this point, I felt less flattered than annoyed.
Collaborative filtering, the term of art for identifying recommendations based on statistical clusters of shared interest, felt less a personal service, more a reduction to a sociological stereotype.
Culture is so personal that we want our preferences to feel unique.
"Customers who bought music by Various Artists also bought music by Coldplay."
The more information we give our content packagers and content providers, the more of this we will see.
In the US, owners of TiVos have complained that their machines jump to conclusions about the television they want to watch, based on scant data.
Look at Sex and the City too often, and they'll record Desperate Housewives for you willy-nilly.
Some viewers have been forced to record Monday Night Football for months in order to remasculinise their profiles.
Reading a small magazine is the opposite of collaborative filtering.
I don't want to be told I'm like other people; I want to be told by someone who isn't.
This is the power that the erudite DJ exerts (John Peel, for many people; Charlie Gillett for me): they make recommendations feel personal, a matter of discrimination rather than demographics.
Apple Memo Ball
Best investment of $2.59 you could make: give this to someone who's down in the dumps and if they haven't already swallowed the pills you'll get at least a risus sardonicus–like grin.
- From the website:
This pad offers 320 decorated "slices" for your notes.
The "stem" is a handy pen.
An appealing gift.
This is the official memo pad of the Fugees.
This is a link to the unofficial website of the Fugees, who broke up in the late 1990s.
This is a link to the Wikipedia entry about the Fugees; notable is that on June 28 of this year they opened the BET Awards with a surprise performance of several of their greatest hits, and that they are planning to reunite for a new album.
$2.59 for 320 slices here.
Oh, for goodness sake, stop dithering — that's less than a penny a slice.
BehindTheDentspeak: The inciDENTAL tourist
That was the witty headline as it appeared above the July 29 USA Today front page story by Mary Beth Marklein on the newest trend in dentistry: "tooth tourism."
Long story short: like medical tourism, its dental counterpart takes advantage of the fact that in many countries around the world dentists are trained at least as well as in the U.S., if not better, yet charge laughably low rates compared to U.S. prices.
Even after factoring in the cost of travel and lodging and all the rest you can still come out far ahead.
For example, look at the table that leads this post.
Here's the article.
- The inciDENTAL tourist
The first day was, admittedly, not great.
Within hours of landing in Vienna, a jet-lagged Nancy Carothers was tilting backward in a dental chair, mouth wide open, a dentist poking at her molars.
It wasn't too painful, though.
It was also part of the plan.
And by the end of her 10 days in this small border town, Carothers had much to smile about.
She had visited Budapest and Vienna, sampled some of Hungary's most popular wines and enjoyed people-watching in neighborhood cafes.
When she returned home to suburban Washington, D.C., she brought gifts for friends and a few souvenirs of her own, including eight new crowns.
A trip to the dentist may not be everybody's idea of a vacation, but it paid off for Carothers.
The tab for her dental work came to $2,900 — about a quarter of the $11,150 she estimates she would have paid had she gone to a preferred dentist in her employer's insurance plan.
In all, she spent just under $4,300 on dental care and travel, including a $45-a-night hotel room and last-minute airfare at a pricey $899.
On top of that, "I could see a country I'd never seen before," says Carothers, a Silver Spring, Md.-based health educator with the federal government.
Austrians, Germans and other Europeans for decades have been crossing the former Iron Curtain to get their teeth fixed, often at jaw-droppingly low prices.
Now, a small but growing number of Americans, prompted by soaring medical costs and dwindling insurance benefits at home, are following suit.
They're contributing to the rising popularity of "tooth tourism," a relatively young trend here, but part of a fast-growing global phenomenon in which travelers, typically from wealthier countries, visit less-developed nations for medical care mixed with vacation — all at cut-rate prices.
Cosmetic surgery, in particular, is reshaping the face of medical tourism.
Want a nose job?
Combine it with a safari in South Africa.
Go to Mexico and lollygag at the pool while you recover.
Or, get bigger breasts in Bangkok and tummy tucks in Argentina.
Although it's buyer beware, most Web-based medical tourism companies boast state-of-the-art facilities and highly trained medical staff.
In Hungary and other Eastern European countries, dental tourism is putting a twist into the trend.
Here in Mosonmagyarovar (moshon-mag-yah-RO-var), brass plaques and molar-shaped signs bearing easy-to-grasp names like "Eurodent" and "Happy Dent" line the streets along a central shopping district.
Some clinics take up a full block; smaller practices are tucked inside hotels, above gift shops or beside casinos.
"Ten years ago, there was no dentist tourism," says Eva Szalai of Tourinform Mosonmagyarovar, a tourism office that displays brochures for dentists.
Today, she estimates that about 150 dentists practice in Mosonmagyarovar, population 33,000.
The slightly larger Sopron (SHO-pron; population 58,000), another dental mecca about 60 miles away, has about the same number.
How can they keep costs down?
"One reason. The manpower is very cheap," says Frank Kannmann, Carothers' dentist, who moved his practice here five years ago from his native Germany.
There, Kannmann says, most of the cost goes to lab technicians and salaries.
Here, he says, he uses the same materials, pays his staff better-than-average wages and still makes a bigger profit.
Kannmann averages two to three U.S. patients a month; Germans and Austrians remain the core market here.
Many of them traditionally combined dental visits with shopping for other lower-priced goods such as cigarettes and cheese, says Sopron tour guide Istvan Vranich.
But as the gap in the cost of other goods has been closing, border-hopping has become less attractive, says Istvan Tama, a tourism marketer in Sopron.
"So if dentists want more patients," Tama says, "they'll have to get them from other markets, like the English or Americans."
That may explain why dentists are trying to drum up U.S. business.
Carothers found Kannmann, for instance, through Posh Journeys, a Reno-based travel agency that has been offering dental tours since 2001.
In May, Poland's Vita Medical Dental Institute in Krakow picked up nine appointments during a Chicago trade show sponsored by the Polish American Chamber of Commerce.
And Budapest-based Kreativ Dental opened a tourism office in New York five years ago.
But 9/11 and, more recently, the fall of the dollar have slowed momentum, says Akos Szilagy, Kreativ Dental's U.S. rep.
The company has served fewer than 100 U.S. patients, he says, "but we are working on it."
Meanwhile, in Mosonmagyarovar, businesses are boosting service for long-distance dental patients.
In the past two years, entrepreneur Florian Scheuer has built a business arranging lodging and airport transport for small dental practices, including Kannmann's.
In February, 8-year-old Diamant-Dent, one of the biggest outfits in town, opened its second clinic, an upscale complex, featuring Italian tile and Spanish furniture, along with an on-site hotel.
Guests who register for its "dental week" package are picked up at the airport and get a free massage.
There are, of course, potential downsides to a dental tour here.
Though locals may know some English, German is a more dominant second language.
Dining, too, can present a challenge for sensitive teeth — Carothers nibbled mostly on tuna salad or spaghetti.
Also, many businesses, including some dentists and hotels, don't accept credit cards.
But, Carothers says, most inconveniences are minor — and part of the adventure.
As for caliber of care, the American Dental Association consumer adviser Matt Messina offers caution.
"My concerns are not for the quality of dentistry received... but for the patient when it comes to long-term follow-up and possible complications," says Messina, who practices in Fairview Park, Ohio.
"The term 'buyer beware' is very much in play here, as you may have fewer options after treatment if you feel it has not gone well."
On that count, Carothers, who doesn't have a regular dentist, acknowledges she took a leap of faith — though she had confidence in Kannmann based on the recommendation of Posh Journey's owners, who had been treated by Kannmann.
"I knew if I walked in the office and it didn't look right, I could leave," she says.
Today, more than two months later, she still has no regrets.
Those concerns aside, dentistry and tourism seem an ideal match.
Carothers was delighted, for example, to get all of her work done in one fell swoop.
And once the major part was out of the way, stopping back for brief fittings left ample time for sightseeing.
Mosonmagyarovar and Sopron are tucked into the Western Transdanubian region, home to thermal spas, wellness retreats and castles along with biking, fishing and kayaking.
It's also the former stomping grounds of composers Franz Lizst and Joseph Haydn.
Sopron is the more attractive of the two, with its cobblestone main square and preserved baroque architecture.
Mosonmagyarovar, too, has its charms, including a castle-turned-university and a quaint downtown.
But perhaps its biggest asset is its location, as Darioush Dadian, 48, a restaurant owner in suburban Philadelphia whose visit to Kannmann overlapped with Carothers', discovered.
After his first appointment, he took off for an eight-day visit to Germany.
After a second appointment, he visited Vienna, just an hour's drive away, and even-closer Bratislava, Slovakia's capital.
Back in Mosonmagyarovar, he happened to meet a local man who invited him horseback riding.
"The highlight of this trip is the people you meet here," Dadian says.
Well, that, plus the cost. Dadian, who found Kannmann on the Internet, had work done on 26 teeth, including crowns, bridges and two extractions.
A dentist back home estimated $43,000 for similar work, Dadian says.
He paid Kannmann $6,000.
"It was grueling that first day," he says.
But "I look better. I feel better. It's money well spent."
If you go...
Getting there: To reach Mosonmagyaróvár or Sopron, it's best to fly into Vienna or Bratislava, Slovakia.
In Mosonmagyarovar: Among the 150 or so dentists practicing here, those with English-language services include Dr. Frank Kannmann (011-36-96-217-979 or happy-dent.net) and Diamant-Dent (011-36-96-579-067 or diamantdent.com), which has its own hotel (doubles, $83 a night) and provides airport pickup from Vienna.
Posh Journeys (775-852-5105 or poshjourneys.com) is a Reno-based company that has been offering dental tours using Kannmann's services since 2001. Their dental packages include accommodations, rental car or airport pickup, a complimentary initial exam and tourism information. They offer a 10% discount on dental services.
In Sopron: The most established dental office in town is inside the family-owned Best Western Pannonia Med Hotel (011-36-99-312180 or pannoniahotel.com). (Its office website, dentalpannonia.com, is in Hungarian and German only, but some dentists and staffers speak English.)
In Budapest: Kreativ Dental (888-573-2848 or kreativdental.com) offers dental services and arranges flights, lodging and tours. Patients are booked into the Hotel Amadeus, where doubles run about $40 a night.
Orikaso Fold Flat Bowl
From Orikaso comes the very cool Fold Flat Bowl (above) that starts out as a flat sheet of plastic and quickly folds into an 18.8 oz. nonstick, easy–to–clean bowl.
The Fold Flat Dish (below)
likewise starts out flat and becomes a 20 oz. dish with corners that snap together to create natural drainer/funnel spouts.
Finally, for baby bear there's the Fold Flat Cup (below) — it's "just right."
Wonderful, aren't they?
The bowl costs $3, the dish $6 and the cup $4 here.