A Teessider is always met with the same question on revealing the origin of their distinctive North Eastern accent: "Isn't that where those parmo things are from?" This mythical dish of the smoggy gods that they're referring to is a delicacy the area has become synonymous with. Just as Naples has pizza and Paris has escargots, Teesside has this elusive slab of calorific comfort food.
This strange and scrumptious talisman was until recently thought of as merely a snack to soak up booze, but things are changing on the Tees. We embarked on a quest to the North East to find out what the fuss is all about...
With a history tainted by rumours, the parmo ("chicken parmesan" to its mum) was most likely born out of the area in the late 1950s as a variation on European dishes like veal parmigiana. It's fairly simple – a breadcrumbed hunk of chicken in thick béchamel sauce, topped with a healthy smothering of gooey cheese – but every Teesside chef has their own spin. Almost anyone who's graced the watering holes of Middlesbrough, Yarm, Redcar, or Stockton has ended their evening by completing the Teesside rite of passage at the nearest takeaway counter.
Stockton-on-Tees even hosts an annual world championships devoted to the parmo, which is judged by perhaps the most knowledgeable and experienced parmo experts in Teesside (so I'm going out on a limb and saying the whole world), Craig Dobson and Stephen Bliss: the Parmo Hunters.
The Parmo Hunters met as skateboarding teens 15 years ago, and on finding a mutual passion for the dish, started up what was initially a self-confessed "daft" Facebook page to review the offerings of local takeaways and restaurants. They gained 2,000 followers in the first day, and are now the guide to Teesside's favourite dish. With 17,000 readers, a new app in the works, and an office painted like an actual parmo, there's probably no one better equipped to take us on a tasting tour.
According to Dobson, rule one of a good parmo is fresh ingredients. "Never trust a round one," he tells me with a wizened shake of the head. "You just wouldn't get a perfectly round butterflied chicken that's also fresh." And its namesake cheesy topping? "Even though they're called chicken parmesans, they very rarely contain any actual parmesan," Bliss says. "But it does need to be good cheese, not cheap greasy stuff. We had one so greasy the box collapsed!" It's also traditional to have a side of garlic sauce and a token sprig of salad – although that tends to remain untouched with these guys.
So, we've picked out parmo joints across Teesside, from hipster healthfood in Boro to good old takeaway scran in Redcar, and we'll learn from the masters along the way. Grab your plastic knives and forks – we're honorary Parmo Hunters for the day.
1. The Classic Parmo at Borge, Stockton
The Hunters are setting the bar high for the first parmo on our tasting tour – they assure me Borge in Stockton is the best. The restaurant's head chef emerges from the kitchen proudly holding a considerably large plate in one hand and his winning trophy for the Parmo World Championships 2014 (restaurant category – yes, there's more than one category) in the other.
"Parmos have a reputation as something people only eat when they're drunk after a night out, but so many restaurants are selling them now," Dobson says, tucking into layers of crunchy breadcrumbs, juicy oven-baked chicken, and secret-recipe béchamel. "The game is always being upped."
Even though Borge is an Italian restaurant, its parmo is a bestseller – and it's easy to see why. The Hunters polish off their hefty portions despite my reminders that they have a fair few more to fit in before the end of the day.
Parmo Hunters rating: "Five stars out of five, always."
2. The Healthy Parmo at Nosh, Middlesbrough
After years of taste-testing countless indulgent recipes (including a chocolate-topped parmo – hmmm) a skinny option is something Dobson and Bliss didn't expect to pop up in Teesside. Sure enough, amongst the kale and superfood salads on the menu at new health food establishment Nosh in Middlesbrough, a low-fat parmo actually exists.
The turkey-based recipe was concocted by head chef Shary, who has previously worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and cooked for Saudi Arabian royalty – albeit probably not making this particular dish. He says the skinny option clocks up just half the fat of a regular parmo, and what's most exciting is that it actually contains parmesan!
OK, so the whole point of the parmo is that it's indulgent, filling, and by nature is generally eaten by people who aren't too calorie-conscious, but Nosh has opened up the eyes of the more quinoa-leaning folk who might never have otherwise ticked that parmo box.
Parmo Hunters rating: "For those on a health kick the Parmo Hunters would go as far as rating this as 4 stars, but in the grand scheme of lovely indulgent parmos it's only a 2. So we'll even it out to 3 stars."
3. The Hotshot Parmo at G's Golden Chippy, Acklam
Any true parmo lover worth their weight in béchamel would point you towards G's Golden Chippy in Acklam for one of the best takeaways that side of the Tees. G's customers love his parmos so much that one of his regulars once froze one and took it to Ibiza in their suitcase.
G himself showed us around his kitchens, pointing out where the various stages of magic happen – some of which we strictly weren't allowed to photograph in case competitors steal his parmo secrets. It's a serious business.
With an overwhelming menu to choose from, we decide to go back to ye olde rumoured origins of the parmo and try a pork base, which Dobson tells me is making a comeback. We mix it up with the famous Hotshot toppings: basically jalapeño, onion, and pepperoni, meaning more pizza-esque flavours – which can never be a bad thing.
The tenderloin was fresh and locally sourced, and the chips were probably the best I've ever tasted. "Proper chip shops are really leading the way for parmos," the Hunters tell me.
Parmo Hunters rating: "Five stars. This guy makes parmos into an art form."
4. The Takeaway Parmo at Medo’s, Redcar
The seaside town of Redcar is huge on parmos, and tucked away near the seafront's 2p slot machines and '90s arcade games is the Hunters' regular haunt: Medo's takeaway.
This place does a particular favourite of theirs: the J Parmo – the spiciest parmo they've had (but no one seems to know what the "J" stands for). "It's got chilli paste sneaked under the béchamel and loads of heat, but still has amazing flavours," Dobson says. "Stephen will be crying like he's just been to see Pitch Perfect 2 after eating this!"
But do takeaway parmos usually mean cheaper ingredients than you'd find in a restaurant or pub? "They're really getting better," Bliss tells me, "Just like this one – it's fresh chicken, the cheese is good, it's not greasy, and it tastes great."
Parmo Hunters rating: "Five stars. As long as you can handle the heat, that is."
5. The Ready-Meal Parmo, Teesside/My House
Jeff the Chef gave the ultimate gift to the North East when he turned Teesside's favourite dish into a ready meal. A surprising number of big supermarkets stock them for less than a fiver each, and not even just in Teesside. He dabbled in branching out to parmo canapés, but presumably upon realising it really isn't something that should be bite-size, stuck to the classic. The particular lady who sold me one in Sainsbury's told me it's one of their bestselling ready meals.
After seeing so many delectable freshly made parmos all day, the meagre portion of chicken which met my oven mitt didn't quite compare to the dinner-plate-sized belly-busters from earlier. But it's a parmo you can have in for whenever you feel like one, so that's quite exciting.
Parmo Hunter rating: The Hunters give this one two stars as "it didn't seem great".
After taking our tasting tour around the nooks of Teesside to seek out just what makes the parmo such a big deal, we've learned the ways of modern and time-honoured parmo appreciation, from firm-favourite comfort food to the family venture bringing parmos to new audiences. The Parmo Hunters have us converted.
To any Teessider, the parmo is a huge source of pride, and thanks to the area's entrepreneurs and loyal devotees, Teesside's best export (sorry Captain Cook and Bob Mortimer) is flourishing into its own quirky cuisine. We've tried just a tiny selection of the goods on offer around Teesside, and if you're not around to sample the real deal, try making your own at home.