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Grana Padano

Delicate, almost frail, so sexy (and counterfeit)

Panna Cotta
Panna Cotta is perhaps the most delicate dessert of all,” recently wrote Nigel Slater, an English cook, writer and BBC TV celebrity. This generally acclaimed worldwide icon of Italian pasticceria has perhaps the simplest and most foolproof recipe of all: it's made by the brief simmering of fresh cream, milk and sugar, with a vanilla pod, then set with a leaf of gelatine. “It doesn't sound like much – until you eat a spoonful,” once warned Anna del Conte, another English food commentator. At its most perfect, Panna Cotta is the kind of dessert “you might consider if angels were coming to dinner,” to quote Slater again.
Nigel Slater
Nigel Slater
Nothing is certain about the origins of Panna Cotta, which in English means ‘cooked cream.’ A 2002 decree, issued by the Government of the Region of Piedmont, in Northern Italy, officially places Panna Cotta among the region’s traditional products; however, it doesn’t give any clue about its origin, excepting an attachment, which states that “it has been said that Panna Cotta was born in the Langhe, invented by a woman of Hungarian origin, at the beginning of the 20th century.” The dessert is, however, very common also in the traditional culinary customs of the bordering Region of Valle d’Aosta. Some authors have perceived an affinity between Panna Cotta and Pezzo di Gelo or ‘piece of ice,’ a recipe given by Pellegrino Artusi in his The Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating well. However Artusi's recipe doesn’t have either cream or milk; it has water and egg yolks.
Panna Cotta
The Piedmont decree stresses that Panna Cotta is a dolce a cucchiaio, literally a ‘spoon desert’, and insists on the fact that it must be “delicate”, explaining word by word; “it’s a delicate white pudding.” In fact, a perfect Panna Cotta should look almost frail, having just the strength to keep its shape as it is turned out of its mould. English food writer, Jay Rayner, found a very colourful way of describing it; “done properly Panna Cotta should wobble like a woman’s breasts”. This delicateness is undoubtedly the defining characteristic of the dessert, together with its basic ingredients, including fish glue that has been slowly replaced by gelatine, agar-agar and other thickening agents.
Jay Rayner
Jay Rayner
In its original form, Panna Cotta is aromatised only with vanilla, but some Piedmont recipes (including the one attached to the Piedmont decree mentioned above) contain rum or Marsala wine added to the cream and sugar. The presentation must also be simple and natural. Traditionally in Piedmont it was eaten plain or, in restaurants, it was accompanied with berries or small fruits, as the legendary La Panna Cotta con i Piccoli Frutti made for over four decades by Gian Bovio at the Bovio Restaurant, in La Morra, Cuneo, Piedmont. Anna del Conte, well aware of these traditions, used to serve her Panna Cotta with only a leave of scented geranium.


Egg Nog Vegan Pannacotta
Egg Nog Vegan Panna Cotta
Anna del Conte
Anna del Conte
The success of Panna Cotta around the world has been astonishing perhaps due to the easiness of its preparation and, at a restaurant level, due to the relevant economic margin a restaurateur can earn. Panna Cotta’s increasing popularity has been proportional to the unlimited number of variations, aromatisation and decorations of it. Media, books, chefs come up daily with novelties, creative, or simply weird, interpretations. To some extent, today, Panna Cotta is a kind of technique –not only in pastry– that has little or nothing to do with the authentic one which the name was originally used for. So, in this case, as in that of many other dishes or desserts, the pastry chef should be free to be creative and innovative by using the Panna Cotta technique, but should stop giving it this name when there’s nothing left of the original dish. That’s the case of the frankstein so-called Nog Pannacotta (with vegan eggnog, dark brown sugar, agar-agar, soy yogurt and vanilla extract) that recently appeared in a blog or the countless industrial forms of panna cotta on the market worldwide.
PS Panna Cotta is so widely spread in Great Britain that many food critics (including Nigel Slater) stated in various occasions that there you can find this dessert made as in Turin or Piedmont, if not better.

Rosario Scarpato