I grew up in the north East of England. Bits of it are lovely. There is gorgeous moorland, there are lakes, the odd vibrant city, or historic cathedral town.
Then there’s Middlesbrough.
It has a population of around 130,000, a fairly mundane 19th century industrial centre, and a credible modern art museum featuring a very large Claues Oldenberg sculpture. It was the birthplace of the explorer James Cook, and is about as pleasant to spend time in as an industrial wood-chipper.
In fact, it is one of the very few places I less enjoy spending time than my nearby home town of Darlington.
But where Darlington has made precisely no contribution to the culinary field, Middlesbrough has, in an odd way, distinguished itself. For Middlesbrough has given us the Parmo.
Think of it as a gnarled and diseased branch of the Parmigiana family tree; one that’s moved up north in some nameless disgrace, and opened a takeaway. It’s some of the dirtiest fast food you can hope to put in your face, and this weekend I have been re-creating this regional delicacy for some of the good folk of Cambridge and Ely.
What actually is a Parmo?
The Parmo is really just an escalope parmesan, tweaked for the post-pub fast food market. It’s breaded, fried chicken or pork topped with a layer of stiff Béchamel sauce, then cheese, and grilled. Typically it’s served with cheddar rather than parmesan on top.
So far, so standard. It could even be a bit dull. But it’s the innovations and the presentation that make it special.
Parmo is traditionally served in a pizza box, on top of a bed of chips, and sprinkled with the kind of salad that even the dirtier kebab shops would consider cursory and uninviting. And it doesn’t stop there. No, for the good people of Middlesbrough have enlarged upon the concept. Seeing it there, in a pizza box, topped with cheese and more-or-less based with carbohydrates, an idea seems to have struck them: toppings.
A layer of pepperoni, or mushrooms, or more or less any conventional pizza topping is relatively common. As are the takeaway-classic array of sauces: chilli, garlic, barbecue.
A little background
I’ve not actually eaten a Parmo in the wild. Largely this has been out of fear. So I can’t claim any very authentic experience, and I doubt I could really hit the library for this one. But ten minutes on Google gets you the plausible origin story of an Italian-American army chef settling in Teesside and coming up with the idea in the 1950s.
It looks like Parmo was on the precipice of going commercial a few years ago, and although the fan site mentioned in the BBC article no longer exists, there’s still a small factory churning them out for supermarkets, and it is apparently possible to buy one from Asda.
Designing a survivable Parmo
A large Parmo is reputed to weigh in comfortably over 2500 calories. I am no stranger to excess, but that gives me pause. With the toppings, the garlic sauce, and the sheer amount of wine it’ll take to get through this, I feel it could take some work. I considered a certain amount of fucking about, of trying to make it somehow more classy. But it just doesn’t feel right.
You could use panko breadcrumbs, a fascinating array of cheeses, make the sauce piquant and delicate, and serve it on top of some kind of dauphinois, or even as part of a thin-sliced potato tart or galette. If I wanted to be a total ponce, I’d bake camembert or reblochon on top of a pork or veal escalope. But that would be bullshit. I am going to assume that the core concept is sound, and just try to execute it with decent ingredients.
In the wild, a Parmo would be drizzled with the kind of analysis-defying garlic sauce that kebab aficionados have come to love. A little googling failed to yield a credible recipe, but it did turn up a few promising other prospects. In particular, it turned up Toum on The Food Blog, a kind of Lebanese aioli. Ideally, it’ll emulsify and stiffen to a meringue-like consistency.
Reading the recipe, I realized I’d actually eaten something similar at a rather promising Lebanese restaurant in Canada, of all places. It’s rich, it’s tasty, and it is garlicky as balls. So I just made that, but substituted roast garlic for fresh. It didn’t quite whip up and stiffen, but it tasted amazing.
- Chicken breasts
- Cheddar cheese
- Parmesan cheese
- Béchamel sauce (butter, flour, milk, seasoning)
- Toppings (In this case: chorizo, jalapenos, mushrooms)
I served this with potato wedges rather than the traditional chips, and a somewhat derisory salad. There was also an aubergine and mushroom Parmo, for the vegetarian present. I can’t help but feel they got the better deal.
First, make a very, very stiff Béchamel. It’s just the standard roux sauce – butter, flour, milk, but don’t let it out as you would if you were making food you planned to respect and enjoy. It wants to be thick and spreadable, like a croquette filling. In this case, I also fried a little garlic in the butter.
Beat the living fuck out of some chicken. For an authentic Parmo experience, it should be flat, and with a texture that suggests only the most cursory relationship with the actual flesh of creatures. I put the chicken breasts between sheets of cling film and hit it with a rolling pin until flat.
Dip the chicken in egg, then breadcrumbs, and fry it in plenty of oil. You probably need more breadcrumbs than you think – they don’t seem to go very far. Given the thickness, it’ll cook through perfectly fine in the time it takes to brown the breadcrumbs on both sides. However, as I was batch cooking five of the bastards, I let them finish in the oven.
When cooked, slather a thick layer of Béchamel over the chicken, then top with a mix of cheddar and Parmesan. Scatter the pizza-style toppings over the top of this, and put it under the grill to melt the cheese and finish off.
Serve with potato wedges, salad, and a prayer to the Elder Gods that your tract might be spared.
What’s odd about it is that it’s actually good, and rather less excessive than I feared.
There’s nothing remarkable here – the chicken is succulent with a crispy coating, and the cheese/Béchamel is rich but not overpowering. There’s something of the bad lasagna to it, or perhaps the nonthreatening 1980s moussaka. It works. The toppings are a step too far, sure, but I kept them moderate.
Basically, we’re looking at some kind of extra-trashy schnitzel.