Unless you're from Northern England, you've probably never heard of parmo. In Teesside, though, the molten chicken-and-cheese dish is more than just takeaway fodder—it has mythological status.
Don't fuck with parmo. All images by the author.
People from Teesside aren't prone to pomposity, so I'll forgive their grandiose christening of the "World" Parmo Championships. Normally, the subject of a world championship is known universally— not a dish served exclusively within a 600km area.
But then there's nothing normal about parmo.
Parmo is a cult dish once described by Simon Cowell as "a weird chicken and cheese thing" and is a source of enormous local pride. Parmo sales are, as yet, unrecorded, but I'd wager that thousands of them are sold daily. The local newspaper has a whole section dedicated to it, for Christ's sake.
When dissected, parmo's mythical status does seem ridiculous. After all, it's just a chicken or pork fillet, flattened and breadcrumbed, deep-fried, spread with béchamel sauce (industry abbreviation: besh) and topped with cheese—usually cheddar and absolutely never Parmesan, of which, inexplicably, 'parmo' is an abbreviation.
It's then grilled or baked into a molten mound and served either as a full or half portion with chips, salad (or another local curio, "creamed cabbage", which is a load of cabbage swimming in besh) and garlic sauce. Trying to squeeze a parmo—a full portion is at least 12" in diameter—into a regular takeaway tray, is a bit like trying to feed a pillow through a letterbox.
The annual World Parmo Championships have been held since 2007, but this year was the first that local arbiters of quality parmos, the Parmo Hunters (that's right), have been judges.
Parmo Hunters was a jokey project started by Craig Dobson and Stephen Bliss. However, 14,000 Facebook followers and one ice bucket challenge later and things are looking pretty serious. If anyone can drill to the core of parmo, it's these guys. I cornered them for a (very brief) chat. They were busy men. Is parmo really something that no one outside the 600km radius can attempt or enjoy?
"It's called the World Parmo Championships because it's open to everyone," says Dobson.
"We've heard of people attempting parmos in Blackpool, Newcastle, Leeds, Benidorm and there's nothing wrong with that. If a restaurant or takeaway gets nominated by our fans, we'll invite them along."
Most Teessiders share this accepting view. Despite the region's firm ownership of the parmo, its residents are happy for the fledgling escalope to revert to feathery form and fly yonder. There's no threat, after all—no one can do a parmo quite like a Teessider.
I was surprised, though, that even the Parmo Hunters couldn't confirm the dish's origin, saying, "There are countless theories." The most common belief is that a rudimentary veal version appeared in a restaurant on Middlesbrough's Linthorpe Road in the '50s, but you could fill a tome with competing theories.
Parmo is not dissimilar to chicken parmigiana, schnitzel or even pizza—they're often served with toppings like the "hot shot" (a handful of pepperoni, peppers, onion and chilli), Bolognese sauce, doner kebab meat or even—gulp—cockles.
What the WPC lacks in bells and whistles, it makes up for in thoroughness and sincerity. It's held in the cookery tent at the Stockton Show, nestled incongruously between the camel race and bird of prey show. My words truly cannot do justice to the magic in the air on the day.
The format is protracted—staff from three takeaways and three restaurants individually cook-off on a stage operating out of a van. Just the four hours, then. This is serious anorak territory. The contestants then serve their plain or "hot shot" parmo to the Parmo Hunters and the illustrious third judge, Stockton-on-Tees' mayor, Barbara Inman. Tender, fresh meat, a flavoursome, smooth and evenly spread béchamel and a perfect layer of well-melted cheese—not too thick, not too greasy—were paramount criterion.
The contestants were stony-faced. Every time I tried to make eye contact I was met with a "now is NOT a good time" glare. I scouted the crowd, geed up on free parmo, for some insight into why the dish holds such mythical status here in Teesside. "Pride" was the unanimous answer. There was nothing else to say.
I'm inclined to agree but then, I am biased. As a Stockton girl, besh is my bone marrow. Parmo is a mandatory appendage to a Teesside night out—of which I've had many. I've often fallen asleep wearing a Booze Army-issued cheese beret, and honestly? I'm all the better for it. I've used the term Teespride in conversations before and will do again.
The chef at a competing takeaway, The Golden Fry, reckons its popularity lies in the fact that it's affordable and can feed a family. You can't argue with that—a full parmo usually clocks in at around eight quid, and carries an estimated 2,700 calories. It's a dish you want to share.
Others said the dish offers "something different" from universal takeaway fodder, or were enthusiastic about its nostalgic comforting and "mystical" qualities. Even plucky Barbara said it's the first thing she orders when she goes out. Good lass.
A spectator called Mel who works at local takeaway, Rio's, disputed the notion that people only eat parmos when pissed up, though. "They fly out the door as soon as we open at four in the afternoon." That's that, then.
Visitors to Teesside love sampling the area's delicacy—Liam Gallagher, Simon Cowell and Kelly Rowland have all been snapped living la vida besh—and local ASDA stores even sell parmos to cook at home, yet the dish remains anchored to the area. As chef from the award-winning parmo restaurant Borge (The Parmo Hunters give it "5/5"), Craig Wilson, says, "It takes a while for anything good to catch on. It needs some investment, someone to drive it forwards."
To me, Teesside is hitting peak parmo. I can practically hear the glass roof splintering. Heed my warning—parmo is coming to your gentrified neighbourhood any day now and you will be powerless to the besh.