The parmo is a food that’s in Teessiders’ blood, in the most literal, artery-clogging sense. Composed of a breadcrumbed and deep-fried fillet of chicken or, less usually, pork, topped with béchamel sauce (béch, to connoisseurs) and cheese, it’s the kind of hearty, wildly unhealthy approximation of a more cosmopolitan dish which has long formed the backbone of British popular cuisine.
It’s more than that, though. Merely calling it a chicken fillet topped with béchamel sauce and cheese is like describing the Mona Lisa as just a nice picture of a lady who looks quite pleased about something. The parmo is a marker of regional identity: distraught Teessiders in exile around the world bond over their desperate search for a half-decent parmo so they can taste home again. Parmos are the infinitely dense point at the heart of Teesside life toward which all conversation gravitates. The fact that the parmo is either ignored or derided in much of the rest of the country, and held up as a symbol of parochial backwardness, only helps to reinforce locals’ deep affection for it.
However, the parmo as we know it is changing. Like burgers and hot dogs before it, the parmo is going gourmet. Depending on who you listen to, this might be a great leap forward or a terrible betrayal of the fundamental principle of the parmo as merely a greasy full-stop to a night out, scoffed with minimal care or attention in some godawful takeaway.
Craig Wilson, Head Chef at Borge in Stockton, admits the link is hard to shake: originally known as a parmesan, the parmo was, he says, quickly co-opted into the ritual of ‘going out drinking and partying, so it was associated with a good time.’ That, he thinks, is why it’s so fondly regarded: memories of great nights out mingle with memories of the parmo, and so ‘it warms people’s hearts a bit.’ However, Wilson is at the vanguard of a movement aiming to rehabilitate the parmo’s image, dragging it from its twilight world and onto the tables of respectable restaurants.
The early history of the parmo is a little sketchy – much of the evidence of their evolution has, alas, been eaten – but most agree that while they originated in Midlesbrough in the late Fifties as a Central European-influenced meat dish, they were soon adapted to become cheap, greasy, post-club stodge.
‘Originally, when takeaways did parmesans, they went for size – they were always battered out very thin, you’d get it in a pizza box and it’d be enormous’, says Wilson. ‘Nothing really went into it, it was just something they could get out very quick. When the restaurants got involved, that’s when it changed.’
And how they changed. The parmo flourished, the renaissance hitting its apogee in 2014 with the revival of the World Parmo Championships in Stockton after a six-year absence. Wilson’s oven-baked examples won both the 2014 and 2015 championships, and he lists another win and two silver medals on his CV.
‘When we do them, we don’t batter them out – you wouldn’t get a fillet steak and whack it down to nothing,’ Wilson reasons. Quality ingredients are also key, he says. ‘The chicken has to be top, grade-A chicken. The béchamel has to be perfect, because it can be sickly. And of course, the cheese has to be a good-quality cheddar cheese. It’s one of those dishes you can’t really mess about with too much.’
Two very interested observers of the gourmet parmo phenomenon are the Parmo Hunters, alias the very affable Dan Pidgeon and Craig Dobson. They’re men with considerable influence on the parmo scene: they’ve got over 20,000 likes on their Facebook page, have rated over 200 parmo institutions, and are an established part of Teesside’s foodie aristocracy. ‘I got recognised in the bank the other day’, says Dan, looking both pleased and bemused.
They’ve even been taken on as consultants for an as-yet-unopened restaurant in Middlesbrough, who wanted to ensure their parmos were perfect before welcoming the public. As defenders of the parmo faith, they’re dismissive of the idea that a parmo ought not to get ideas above its station.
‘It used to just be takeaways, but it’s not now,’ says the garrulous and heavily-tattooed Craig, who’s particularly aggravated by the notion. ‘People need to get that into their heads. It’s not just this greasy thing you get in a box anymore.’
Nor are the Hunters parmo puritans. They accept that variants like the jalapeno-augmented ‘hotshot’ parmo, the full English parmo with a fried egg, sausages, black pudding and tomatoes (‘That was gorgeous, that’, Dan remembers, ‘You got a little pot of beans instead of garlic’), and even a horrifying-sounding concoction involving melted Rolos (‘I hate myself for saying it, but it was actually alright’) are all part of God’s rich parmo tapestry.
The Redcar natives invited Living North to accompany them on one of their hunts in Hartlepool. Their first choice, the amazingly-named chips and pizza dispensary Chipizza, is sadly closed, as is their back-up option, so we head to a back-up back-up, a charming little bijoux place with bars on the windows, down at the marina. We order the usual – chicken parmo with chips, garlic sauce and salad – and chat as heavy plops of rain spatter on the windshield of Craig’s car.
The Hunters’ custom is to subtly leave a calling card reading ‘You’ve been hunted!’ on their way out of an establishment, the plan being that it works as a kind of visual mic drop: upon finding the note the restaurant is supposed to go into apoplexy while Craig and Dan high-five and walk away in slow motion. However, it’s not quite coming off as planned this time.
‘Come on, pick it up...,’ Craig mutters to himself, craning his neck to see inside as inconspicuously as possible. The girl at the counter picks up the sticker, squints at it, then looks quizzically after Craig. The tension is palpable. Then she says something to the guys cooking the parmos, and everyone bursts out laughing.
Slightly deflated, Craig gets back in the car. We tuck into the parmo in an Asda car park and quickly agree that the béch is underwhelming, the cheese pedestrian and the chicken undistinguished. It’s a two-stars-out-of-five job. The thrill of the hunt, though, is always in the chase.
‘You can get some pretentious people’, Parmo Hunter Craig says as we discuss the elevation of the parmo. There is, he adds, ‘a fine line between pretentious and perfect’.
Pretentious is a word that’s rarely thrown at Teesside. However, far from alienating the parmo from its roots, Craig Wilson the chef thinks the gourmet movement is a reflection of regional pride – as the parmo returns to its origins as a quality meat dish akin to the schnitzel, so Teesside has a renewed desire to be taken seriously. After years of being seen as the poor relation of Sunderland and Newcastle, Middlesbrough is ready to shout about itself again.
As Wilson says, with no little pride: ‘I suppose it is quite a good thing for people to say, “This is from our area; this is ours.” It came from the North; it was born here.’ Now, after years in the culinary wilderness, it’s being reborn up here too.