June 21, 2012

The Cheeses of Italy

Almost every region of Italy has its own distinct cheese and the sheer number of different types is astounding. Cheese is a part of everyday life in Italy, consumed at almost every meal. Each region boasts its own speciality and depending on which you choose, the subtleties and nuances that make up the particular soils, plants and grasses of a particular region the cows & sheep graze on are recognized in that they lend distinctive qualities to the milk that make up each cheese. As always, it is my goal to educate you as well as entertain, so that you can become a gourmet in your own right.

Asiago
Made in the region of Vicenza and Trento, this is a traditional, farmhouse cheese that is creamy, unpasteurized and hard. Originally made of ewe's milk, it is now made entirely of cow's milk. As we have covered in a previous feature of this cheese, there are two types of Asiago: A lightly pressed cheese made from whole milk, matured for 20-30 days and a second aged cheese made with skim milk. Long and slow maturation process creates fruity, slightly sharp cheese with a compact, granular interior full of small holes. Matured over 2 years, it becomes intensely flavored.


Bel Paese
From the Lombardy region of Italy, this is a modern, creamy, semi soft cheese and has a light, milky aroma. It is matured for 6-8 weeks. The pure Italian cheese is identified by its wrapping, which feature an image of a priest and the map of Italy. In the U.S. licensed versions show a map of the Americas. The name means "beautiful land" and was inspired by the title of a book by Stoppani. Bel Paese is very similar to French St. Paulin. It can also be used instead of mozzarella.

Bocconcini
This is a fresh mozzarella that comes in various sizes, packed in either water or brine. Other fresh mozzarella, such as Fiore di Latte Trecce, etc. are Bocconcini in different shapes.

Bra
Traditional, unpasteurized, hard cheese which has a round shape. The cheese is named after the place where it was originally sold. There exist two types of Bra. The traditional, hard version that ripens for three to six months. The color darkens and the flavor intensifies. The other type is sold young, at 45 days, when the paste is still soft. This version is made from pasteurized milk. Bra is used as a table cheese, but also for grating and melting.

Caciocavallo
This cheese originates from southern Italy. It's a traditional, stretched curd cheese made from cow's milk. It's gourd-shaped and tied at the thin end with a cord to hang. After a period of three months this cheese can be eaten as a table cheese and after a period of two years, it is used for grating. There are also smoked versions of this cheese. Cavallo means "horse" in Italian and it is said that this cheese was originally made from mare's milk. In the Italian language the expression "to end up like Caciocavallo" means to be hanged.

Canestrato
From a region of Foggia, this is a traditional, farmhouse, unpasteurized, semi-hard cheese. Milk with paste rennet is curdled at 95 degrees F. Once the curd is firm, it is cut scalded by heating it to 110 degrees F, salted and then peppercorns are added. There is no set ripening period for this cheese, therefore its taste and consistency varies.

Casciotta di Urbino
It is a traditional, unpasteurized, semi-soft cheese. It has a shape of a round-edged cylinder with a thin, polished, yellow to orange natural rind. The name of the cheese is used to describe the many small cheeses made all over central Italy. It can be made with cow's, goat's or sheep's milk. The flavor is sweet and moist, with the aroma of warm milk. It is a delicate, subtle cheese with flavors of fresh green grass, nuts and wild flowers. This cheese is produced only between April and September. It ripens in 15 - 30 days and has a fat content of 45 per cent. Casciotta di Urbino is used as a table cheese, in salads and for cooking.

Castelmagno
This cheese is made from partially skimmed cow's milk, with some goat's or sheep's milk added. The evening milk is left to ripen overnight. The next day, the morning milk is added, which contributes to its strong taste and unusual texture. The reddish-yellow, natural rind is crusty, with some gray molds and yeast. The cheeses are left to ripen in damp cellars and drying rooms, occasionally being turned and washed to encourage the development of the natural micro-flora that contribute to the pungent, yeasty aroma. Blue molds, present in the cellars, sometimes penetrate the rind to form fine, blue streaks that impart a more spicy flavor to the cheese. It is used as an after-dinner cheese and to make gnocchi.

Crescenza
White square or rectangular, this fresh cheese is made from cow's milk. This cheese belongs to Stracchino-style cheeses, but varies from the rest by its fat content. This cheese is sold after a few days wrapped in simple, white, greaseproof paper. Smooth and moist, it has a fresh, clean acidity. Other Crescenzas are more rubbery, jelly-like or mushy, with a sour taste. Low-fat varieties can be grainy. The cheese should be ripened for no longer than ten days and as such eaten as quickly as possible.

Dolcelatte
It is a wheel shaped, creamy, blue cheese made from cow's milk. The cheese has a sweet taste as the name suggests. Dolcelatte means "sweet milk." This cheese is very soft and melts in the mouth like ice-cream. It was created by the Galbani company, famous for cheese making. The method of production is very similar to Gorgonzola, except that Dolcelatte is made from the curd of only one milking. Similar cheeses include, for example, Dolceverde and Torta Gaudenzio.

Fiore Sardo
It is a cheese of cylindrical or wheel shaped. The rind is natural, golden-yellow to dark brown and has a sour, damp smell. The cheese is hard and grainy and has a wonderfully rich flavor, with caramel sweetness, salty tang and a hint of fruit. Rennet from lamb is used to coagulate milk. When drained, the curds are scalded in hot water to seal the rind. Then, they are stored on a woven reed shelf absorbing the sweet smoke as they dry. Ripening continues in another room, or the attic and the cheeses are periodically rubbed with olive oil and sheep fat to keep them moist. This cheese ripens in three to six months.

Fontal
Originally started as the French version of Fontina, Fontal has developed into a distinct cheese of its own. It is generally made commercially on a large scale. It is tender and buttery with a bland taste and a yellow paste with tiny holes.

Genuine Fontina

This is the original cheese and it comes from the Val d'Aosta region of Italy in the Alps near the French and Swiss borders. Fontina is dense, smooth and slightly elastic. The straw-colored interior, with its small round holes, has a delicate nuttiness with a hint of mild honey. When melted, as it frequently is, the flavor is earthy with a taste of mushrooms and a fresh acidity. Fontina is the primary ingredient of Italian fonduta, which we covered in our feature about fondue, and is a pristine table or dessert cheese.

Fresh Mozzarella 
The cheese that is best known around the world as 'pizza cheese,' it is a must in every Italian's kitchen. It is a fresh cheese that is always mild, high in moisture and low in fat. For most traditional Italians, the best version of this cheese is made from buffalo milk, though most American mozzarella is made with cow's milk. It has a slightly acidic or lactic taste. It is mostly used for cooking, but if you can get it freshly made from your local Italian grocer, it is best served topped with basil leaves, drizzled with olive oil atop a slice of fresh tomato, dusted with paprika, charcoal or fresh herbs, such as oregano.

Fresh Ricotta
Light, delicate and moist, this is made from whey, so it's low in fats and calories and contains a lot of vitamins. It is believed that this is the cheese that Miss Muffet was consuming when she sat on her tuffet and had her infamous encounter with the spider. It is another of the most well known types of fresh Italian cheeses. You will find it combined with mozzarella when used as the filling for stuffed shells, manicotti, ravioli's. As a child growing up, when my mom made this fresh, it was all she could do to keep me out of the bowl, eating it just after it was combined with the fresh herbs and spices. This is actually my favorite way to eat ricotta. Another staple in Italian households, especially around Christmas and Easter is ricotta pie, and ricotta cheesecake, which is a bit lighter and fluffier than its cream cheese counterpart, and has become quite popular.

Fresh Truffles
There is a wide range of this kind of Italian cheese like Italian White Truffles, French Summer Truffles, French Winter Truffles, etc. These cheeses taste delicious with condiments, for example Truffle and Porto Sauce, Black Truffle Mustard, Black Truffle Sherry Vinegar and many others.

Gorgonzola
This is a traditional, creamy and co-operative, blue cheese. The greenish-blue penicillin mold imparts a sharp, spicy flavor and provides an excellent contrast to the rich, creamy cheese. Gorgonzola is made in the northern Italian village of Gorgonzola, from which it gets its name, either from unpasteurized or pasteurized milk to which the mold is added. At about four weeks, the cheeses are pierced with thick needles to encourage the spread of the mold. Gorgonzola ripens in three to six months. The cheese is usually wrapped in foil to keep it moist. Its color ranges from white to straw-yellow with an unmistakable marbled green or bluish-green mold. The taste ranges from mild to sharp, depending on age.

Grana Padano
Grana is a traditional, co-operative, unpasteurized, hard cheese. The smooth, natural rind is extremely hard and thick. This cheese is known to many of us as simply "Parmesan." The cheese should taste fresh, fruity and sweet, with a hint of pineapple. The pale yellow interior should be hard, grainy and crumbly. Grana Padano freezes very well. It ripens in 12 -48 months.

Il Boschetto al Tartufo
The Il Boschetto al Tartufo is a mild semi-soft cheese, a blend of sheep and cow's milk, loaded with white truffle bits. If you ever have a chance to purchase this cheese, while a bit on the pricey side, it is well worth every tender morsel and mouthful. If you are a lover of truffles as I am, this will become one of your favorite cheeses for any occasion. I absolutely love this cheese.

Mascarpone
A soft, white, fresh, vegetarian, cream cheese from the Lombardy region of southern Italy. In fact, it is not cheese at all, but rather the result of a culture being added to the cream skimmed off the top of the milk used in the production of Parmesan. It is, however, described as a curd cheese, although it is made in much the same way as yogurt. To make mascarpone, cheese tartaric acid (natural vegetable acid derived from the seed of the tamarind tree) is needed. After the culture has been added, the cream is gently heated, then allowed to mature and thicken. This white to straw-yellow fresh cheese is creamy, mild and compact, while maintaining a buttery supple and spreadable texture and it is added to famous Italian desserts, sometimes accompanied by cognac. Frequently it is used for the preparation of certain dishes and sauces, and chefs are now using it in more and more creative ways.

Montasio
This creamy, unpasteurized, hard cheese is made from cow's milk. The yellow-brown rind is smooth and springy at first, later it becomes darker and harder. This cheese was developed in the thirteenth century in the monastery of Maggio. Originally, it was made only from sheep's milk. The cheese has the same shape as Fontina, but in texture, it resembles a young Asiago. The body is firm with small holes. It is creamy, rich and fruity, with a hint of pineapple. As it matures, the rind becomes very hard and the interior becomes granular and even brittle.

Pannerone
Panera means "cream" in Italian and Pannerone is one of the creamiest cheeses available. Milk is curdled at 89 degrees F and gently stirred as the curd forms. The stirring releases whey and also helps the mass to grow firm. The curd drains for 12 hours in cheese cloths, and placed in a heated environment of upwards of 80 degrees F for one week. The temperature is dropped to 50 degrees F for another week and the cheese is immediately ready for market. Pannerone has a smooth taste with a hint of bitter bite. Sometimes mistaken for Gorgonzola, due to its shape, however, it does not have veins.

Parmigiano-Reggiano
A traditional, unpasteurized, hard cheese made from cow's skim milk. It has a shape of a drum with sticky, hard, yellow to orange rind. Parmigiano Reggiano weighs 75 lbs. and must be cut by a saw. The aroma is sweet and fruity, the color, fresh yellow and the taste is fruity, like pineapple. Parmigiano Reggiano's flavor is unmistakably piquant. Primarily, a grating cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano is a great topping for soups, pasta dishes, veal chicken or salads. In Italy, this cheese is sold in large, grainy chunks, chiseled from the shiny drum that carries its name emblazoned on the rind.

Pecorino Romano
This is a sheep's milk cheese which is straw-white in color and has the sharpest flavor of all the other cheeses listed here. Although it is sometimes referred to as Locatelli, Locatelli is a brand name. Pecora in Italian means sheep and Pecorino Romano is one of Italy's oldest cheeses. Legend has it that a shepherd filled his flask with sheep's milk before a long trip and the motion during the trip caused the milk to naturally ferment. The idea for a new cheese was born. Today most Pecorino is made in Sardinia, Italy. With its fine flavor, Pecorino's popularity as a grating cheese has grown significantly in the U.S. Since sheep only give milk for 6-7 months a year, all production in that window of time must satisfy the public's demand for the entire year.

Provolone
This is a very versatile cheese used for cooking, dessert purposes and even grating. It is traditional, creamy, stretched curd cheese. This cheese appears in various shapes. The thin, hard rind is golden-yellow, shiny and is sometimes waxed. Provolone cheese can be of various types. Dolce (mild Provolone) is aged for two to three months, and it is supple and smooth with a thin waxed rind. It is generally used as a table cheese. Aged for six months to two years, it is darker with small holes and a spicy flavor.

Ragusano
A very popular cheese produced in Sicily, the cheese usually has a shape of a brick and it is made from unpasteurized cow's milk. The curd is heated and stretched until it is rubbery. Then it is pressed into rectangular molds and the cheese is left to dry. Salted and rubbed, the cheese is ready for affinage that takes six months. During this period of time, it is regularly rubbed with a mixture of oil and vinegar. After this period of time the cheese hardens and the taste becomes stronger and more savory.

Raschera
Raschera comes from Cuneo. Its name is derived from Lake Raschera, which lies at the foot of Mt. Mongioie. It is a semi-soft cheese made from sweet cow's milk. The flavor of Raschera changes from season to season. Spring and summer cheeses are sweet, fresh and slightly tart. Winter cheeses are more solid and vibrant. Raschera has a round or square shape with reddish-yellow crust.

Ricotta Salata
When fresh ricotta goes through its natural aging process, a hard, pungent cheese, suitable for eating or grating results. Like fresh ricotta, ricotta salata is almost white in color.

Sottocenere al Tartufo
The Sottocenere al Tartufo is a little firmer in texture, all cow's milk, but packs a truffle punch, with the added flavor of having been aged in an edible vegetable ash rind with nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, licorice, cloves and fennel rubbed in.

Taleggio
Buttery, delicate, semi-soft and subtlety sweet, this cheese is made from cow's milk. It usually has a square shape. The cheese has a special taste and aroma. The crust is pinkish-gray and the paste is white, supple and fruity. There is also a cooked-curd version which is firmer and bears a resemblance to mozzarella. Taleggio is also known as Stracchino (from the Italian word stracche, which means fatigued), which referred to the cows of the area after they traveled back to the valley from their grazing season in the high pastures. Taleggio is an excellent dessert cheese that goes very well with a robust wine.

Ubriaco
Traditional, hard cheese made from cow's milk. The name of the cheese means "drunken" in Italian and it is because the young cheese is soaked in wine, covered with the crushed grape skins left after pressing and then allowed to mature for six to ten months. The cheese has a firm, crumbly but open texture that is fairly wet and the taste has a hint of pineapple.

While this list is extensive, believe it or not, it is not a complete list of all the cheeses that come from Italy. I hope that you have a greater understanding now of how very much the Italians love their fromage. Take it upon yourself to explore the varying tastes and textures of all that Italy's regions and the cheeses that they produce have to offer. You'll be glad you did.

 Buon Appetito, ciao!


Luigi

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