“PARMO,” says the Oxford English Dictionary. “English, regional (North-East). A dish consisting of a fillet of breaded chicken, pork, or other meat that is fried, topped with béchamel sauce and cheese, and then grilled, typically sold as takeaway food.”

The mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, is trying to get Protected Designation of Origin status for the humble “parmo”, a dish which seems to have its working class roots at the end of a Teesside drinking session but which has now been poshed up so that it appears on the menus of the most fashionable dining establishments, even in Yarm.

There are loads of theories about the beginnings of the parmo, although the one that concerns an Algerian student who had a bad case of the munchies one night and created a dish out of the random contents of his fridge is probably not true. His name, it is said, was Mustafa Parmo.

The strongest theory revolves around a US soldier – possibly an army chef – called Nicos Harris who was wounded in the Second World War in France. He recuperated in hospitals in England and then settled in Middlesbrough, where he opened the American Grill on Linthorpe Road and began serving parmesans in 1958. It is said that he based his speciality on a dish he’d tasted in his childhood in the US in the 1930s, which was itself based on the parmigiana – a shallow fried breaded meat cutlet, often veal, which came from Parma in northern Italy.

So the dish is not named because of parmesan cheese, which also comes from Parma along with ham and possibly violets, but because of the city.

But in 2007, when Stockton held the first World Parmo Championships, another theory was put forward. One of the judges was chef Charlie Constantine, of the Buck Hotel in Great Ayton who was hailed as the inventor of the parmo. He said: "We just couldn't get the veal in the 1960s, so we took the béchamel sauce from our moussaka and put it on a deep-fried pork fillet. Parmesan goes hard when you grill it so we replaced it with cheddar, but we forgot to change the name on the menu."

So pork and cheddar are the Teesside twists on the parmo, although its veal heritage can still be seen as most recipes and menus refer to an “escalope” of meat at its core. “Escalope” is a French word meaning shell, and in cookery circles it comes because since the early 18th Century, meat – usually veal – was cooked in a sauce in a shell-shaped pan.

Indeed, because Teesside is a cosmopolitan place, so the parmo is a cosmopolitan dish: béchamel sauce is named after a marquess, Louis de Bechamel (1630-1703), who was chief steward to the French King Louis XIV. Bechamel perfected a traditional French white sauce recipe – butter, flour, milk and possibly cream – and so it still bears his name.

The parmo is also a rapidly evolving dish.

For example, somehow it changed from cheap takeaway into a restaurant dish in a way the humble kebab has never managed. The first mention of it on a proper menu in the Echo’s archives is from December 1993 when Mike Amos encountered a “pork parmesan” at The Talbot in Bishopton.

That must also have been when the meat at the heart of the parmo was evolving once more – by the end of the 1990s, the dish that had started with veal had settled on an escalope of chicken as its preferred taste.

And, of course, the name of the dish evolved. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded usage of “parmo” as an abbreviation for “parmesan” was on May 7, 2003, in the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette (which for many months ran a parmo of the week column such was the delicacy’s ubiquity in the Boro).

“Parmo”, though, was clearly in use years, perhaps decades, before that date.

Indeed, on November 22, 1999, the Echo reported that a man had become trapped in his flat in Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough, when a fire had broken out below in the UK Parmo Restaurant.

The Echo’s archive also reveals that our first mention of “parmo” on a proper restaurant menu was in September 2005 when Malcolm Warne found "Teesside's Own Chicken Parmo", described as "a traditional Teesside dish”, for £12.50 at the Divan Hotel beneath Sutton Bank, near Thirsk.

But the abbreviation’s place in the local lexicon was cemented on April 27, 2006, when in the 90th minute Massimo Maccarone scored Middlesbrough’s fourth goal to take them through to the final of the UEFA Cup, and legendary radio commentator Ali Brownlee yelled: “It’s one of the most glorious nights in the history of football. It’s party, party, party. Everybody round my house for a parmo.”

But even by the end of the decade, the parmo was not known beyond the boundaries of the Tees Valley. On November 13, 2009, the Eggheads TV quiz show asked contestants to name the region from which the parmo originates: East Anglia, North Wales or Teeside (sic). The eggheads chose East Anglia.

Still, on May 30, 2010, in an episode of Come Dine With Me filmed in Darlington, a small parmo was cooked as a starter.

Not everyone, though, has been so enamoured with the taste of the parmo. Simon Cowell described it as “a weird chicken and cheese thing" while author Tim Moore said in his 2011 food travel book You Are Awful (But I Like You) that it was like “a spam fritter left outside for a year in a land where it rained fondue”.

And, of course, the chair of the National Obesity Forum called it a “monstrous piece of food” as even a moderate-sized parmo contains 2,000 calories. Indeed, in 2010, a Yarm campany called dotUK launched the parmo-counter, which worked out how much exercise someone needed to do to work off the calories.

"A five-mile walk is worth about a sixth of a parmo, while a 135-mile cycle – the length of the Coast-to-Coast route from Whitehaven to Tynemouth – earns you just over one-and-a-half,” explained a spokesman.

So will the next chapter in the history of the parmo see it getting Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Union, just like Cornish pasties, Wensleydale cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies – wouldn’t it be a magnificent if the final piece of documentation handed down from Brussels on the day before Britain left the EU was official recognition of the parmo as a culinary treat that can come only from Teesside?

And then Teesside University would start a course in the study of this culinary sub-culture which would be run by a suitably qualified academic – a parmesan professor, a prof of the parmo.

  • Have we missed out any chapters in our history of the parmo? Any parmo-related memories or information would be gladly welcomed. Email: chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk

TREVOR CHARVILLE adds valuable information about the history of the chicken variant of the parmo. He says: "The first restaurant to do the chicken parmo was Steve's Rendezvous in Linthorpe Road in Middlesbrough in 1979. Then the Enterprise restaurant in Newport Road in Middlesbrough, which is now Grubbs Diner opposite the bus station, then did it, as did The Elenique restaurant and then Bibbi's on Linthorpe Road, all in 1979.