Adoriamo il formaggio! We love cheese, really and truly. Here are four little love letters to some of our favorites from Italy.
Four Italian Cheeses
Nov 18, 2020 • Shannon Doyne
Move over, mozzarella (but don’t go away). We just want to make room for a few more Italian cheeses to form a great collection of go-tos whether you’re cooking a pasta dinner, making a salad more splendid or bracing yourself for a chilly picnic (‘tis the year to thicken our skins!).
We Ashevillians are lucky to have a newish cheese shop in town—South Slope Cheese Co. Cherry and Connie took a field trip where Cheesemongers and Shop Proprietors Emily and Kurt Burrett had a tableau of Italian cheese and wine ready for us to taste. Here’s what we chose!
"Taleggio is the perfect combination of hearty and wet, it has body but still oozes out of its thin washed rind like perfectly set caramel. It’s nutty and buttery and a little barnyardy for those who like stinky cheeses but not to the extreme of keeping it on the window sill so the smell doesn’t take up your whole kitchen."
A thousand years ago, taleggio production began in Valsassina, a picturesque valley in the Alps of Lombardy, in the province of Lecco. The old farming ways endure: cows graze at higher altitudes, which likely contributes to the quality of the milk found in this nutty, fruity, meaty, smeary cheese.
The smell is strong, the brine-washed rind is sticky (and edible) but the cheese itself is mild. It pairs well with farmhouse ale, saison, biere de garde, a glass of pinot noir. A good story to tell or recall as you smear taleggio on a cracker or melt it into risotto, polenta or fondue: the cheese is named for the caves of Val Taleggio, where it was kept, according to tradition, from six to ten weeks, washed with seawater once each week and turned over once a day to manage the mold.
"If Parmesan and Piave were humans, Piave would be the hopeful adolescent in the sweet and easy early days of Spring Awakening. Sweet, smooth, ripe with potential—anything but simple but not yet cynical. In more useful terms—delicious!"
In northeastern Italy, along the border with Austria, the Alpi Carniche (or Carnic Alps) rise. There on the slopes of Mount Peralba, the Piave River begins. It then flows 137 meandering miles to the Adriatic Sea. Piave cheese is named for this river and in fact, as designated by European Union law, piave has Protected Designation of Origin, so cheese can only bear this name if it comes from this specific geographical area. A hard, cooked curd cheese made from cow’s milk offered at five ages, we are partial to Piave Vecchio, aged between six months and a year.
Dense, nutty and slightly sweet, piave vecchio is hard enough for grating over bitter greens: your radicchio and dandelion greens salads or baked broccoli rabe. Really, anywhere parmesan-reggiano goes, piave vecchio can go, too, but as the younger of the two, piave vecchio is a little sweeter, a little more creamy, too. It’s a friend to wine—your call on the color—or a nice mug of classic amber ale.
Connie & cherry say:
"We were confused by this one! Honestly, at first we couldn’t tell if we liked it but we just kept returning to it and tasting more and more and more. What’s delightful and also uncanny is just how much the chamomile shines through—like, more chamomile-y than chamomile tea!"
There’s only slightly less cinematography to the naming here: “Pecorino” means “of sheep” in Italian. It’s a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk. But you think of chamomile, don’t know? That’s because when the sheep graze in late spring and early summer, the flowers are in bloom. Eating those flowers, the sheep produce milk that is noticeably floral in aroma.
The best known of the bunch is Pecorino Romano or “of sheep from Rome.” Pliny the Elder wrote about its making 2,000 years ago. This is the cheese that fueled the Roman army, along with soup made of bread and farro. It’s a cheese for grating and we love the sharpness (the older, the sharper) it brings to just about any soup. And spaghetti cacio e pepe or alla carbonara can’t live without pecorino. We can’t either, and we raise a toast to it with a glass of chianti or montepulciano unless we keep it simple with another pecorino: the crisp white wine that comes mainly from Italy’s Abruzzo region.
"After eating one slice of caciocavallo it’s hard to stop yourself from eating the whole wedge. It’s silky, salty, and toothsome, depthful but not overwhelming and still has the comforting quality of the Boar’s Head provolone on your Ingles sub."
If you like mozzarella and provolone but you sometimes wish for greater depth—maybe a little more smoky, fruity, earthy—slice up some caciocavallo, a name that may look like “horse cheese” in translation, but likely refers to the saddlebag-like way two teardrop-shaped sacks of cheese look when they are tied together and draped over a wooden rod, unless it’s the Italian version of an ancient Turkish cheese called qasqawal.
Made from cow’s or sheep’s milk, southern Italy is the home of caciocavallo, though you’ll find similar cheese in Greece and the Balkans, too. Like mozzarella and provolone, caciocavallo is a stretched curd cheese, or pasta filata. You’ll taste almonds and anise. When we aren’t feeling a crisp white wine (which is when, exactly?) we like it with a dry cider, a schwarzbier, a kolsch on a balmy night.