If you think cheese – and of course you do now – the first country that pops into mind is France.
Few of us know that Italy also is one of the countries in the world with the largest variation of cheese as they produce more than 400 different kinds of cheese. From pizza to pasta, the world relies heavily on the artisan cheeses produced and imported from Italy.
Most of us are familiar with some of Italy’s everyday cheeses, but there are other varieties of Italian cheese with an abundance of culinary possibilities.
Made from cow’s milk, Asiago is a firm, cooked and pressed cheese that may be aged for up to one year. Many Asiago cheese makers produce the mild, yet pungent and light-coloured delicacy in the valleys of the Dolomite Mountains (also known as the Italian Alps) located in Cortina, Italy. Asiago is perfect for shredding, used as a table cheese to complement pasta, traditional risotto or soups, or thinly sliced and served atop a warm, crunchy baguette with fruit
An alpine cheese made from whole cows’ milk to which not more than 10% goats’ milk is added. The rind is straw-yellow in colour, which tends to become more intense with ageing. Medium to long maturing.
A medium-fat cheese produced in the province of Cuneo. The rind is light grey (Bra tenero) or dark grey (Bra duro). The Bra tenero is slightly sharp and tasty, while the Bra duro truly sharp in taste.
The Canestrato is a traditional hard cheese from the region of Puglia, made with sheep milk. This cheese, which has a fairly mild flavour, may be consumed fresh (for cooking) or after 6 months maturing. The name comes from the typical rush baskets (canestri) of the Pugliese region, in which the cheese is put to mature.
A semi-soft, almost flesh-colored cheese, this buttery gem is a slightly nutty and mild delight. Valle d’Aosta, located in the most northwest corner of Italy, is home to the milk-producing cows grazing the high altitudes of the Italian Alps. Known for inclusion in gourmet recipes, Fontina is excellent as a fondue or a simple snack.
The (in)famous blue veined Italian blue cheese, made from whole cow’s milk. The classic Gorgonzola (Gorgonzola dolce) is creamy and tasty, but it can become quite salty and crumbly when maturing (Gorgonzola piccante). Maturing takes 2 months to 3 months for the Gorgonzola dolce and piccante respectively and the DOP cheese may be produced only in two regions of Italy: Piedmont and Lombardy. Originally known as “Stracchino di Gorgonzola“, after the eponymous town near Milan, where this cheese presumably originated in the 9th C.
- Grana Padano
Grana Padano originated in Lower Lombardy in the 12th century. It is a semi-fat hard cheese, which is cooked and ripened slowly (one to two years) and the best selling cheese world-wide. Grana Padano is often mistaken for Parmigiano. “Grana Padano” (first known as “Grana Lodigiano”) and “Parmigiano-Reggiano” are considered two separate cheeses since the Stresa Convention of June 1st, 1951.
- Grana Trentino
Mountain cheese belongs to the Consorzio di Tutela del formaggio Grana, but uses the subdenomination “Trentino”, according to a specific derogation.
A cooked, full-fat, semi-hard cheese from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.
The Montasio has a smooth and even rind and a light yellow paste (with small eyes). Montasio exists in three varieties according to the ageing period: fresh (2 months), semi-aged (4 to 10 months), aged (over one year). The first two types are table cheeses, while the aged variety may also be consumed as grating cheese.
- Monte Veronese
A cylindrical, semi-cooked, semi-hard cheese made from cow’s milk which is produced in the Province of Verona. Monte refers to a production technique where the cow milk used for the curdle stems from different milkings. Monte Veronese cheese comes in three types: “with whole milk” (a latte intero) with a green label; “semi-aged” (d’allevo mezzano) with a blue label, and “aged” (d’allevo vecchio).
The fragrant taste of the young Monte Veronese becomes slightly sharper by ripening. According to the stage of ripening, Monte Veronese may be used a table or grating cheese.
Most everyone has heard of mozzarella. Yet another cow’s milk cheese (although previously made from water buffalo milk) this is one of a few cheeses that really have two forms of “fresh”. True fresh mozzarella is made from whole cow’s milk, formed into balls and typically stored either in water, brine or whey to maintain its sharp white colour and freshness. A delightful fresh mozzarella tasting experience is insalata caprese – a simple combination of fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil and olive oil.
The second form of fresh mozzarella is typically mass-produced as a soft cheese with greater elasticity than true fresh mozzarella. This form of mozzarella is typically produced in a block form or pre-shredded.
Murazzano is a soft, dense, rind-less cheese produced in Piedmont from raw or pasteurised ewe’s milk (min 60%) and cow’s milk (max 40%). Traditionally, Murazzano was produced only from milk of the native sheep breed Pecora delle Langhe (Langhe Sheep). The cheese is dry-salted and natural aromas such as truffle, hot pepper, herbs or rosemary may be added.
- Parmigiano Reggiano
Alongside mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano – the parmesan as we know it – is one of Italy’s most famous cheeses. This cow’s milk cheese is a subtle blend of many Italian provinces including Parma and Bologna. Typically aged anywhere from 6 to 36 months, Parmigiano Reggiano is superb over fresh pasta or as a singular snack. Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano will contain a stamp bearing its name on the outer rind of the cheese. It’s best to purchase the cheese whole, not grated, to maintain peak freshness and flavor. Most people will toss the rind aside, but within the rind contains abundant flavor and culinary options. The flavor of soups and stews can be greatly enhanced with a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano rind.
Cheese made from sheep’s milk is known as pecorino (Pecora means sheep in Italian). If it is aged can be used instead of parmesan on pasta dishes and is sometimes preferable if a sharper taste is desired an is delicious on plain fresh Tomato pasta. The best known is the Pecorino Romano other popular pecorinos are from Tuscany, Sardinia and Sicily.
This mildly smoky cheese is made from cow’s milk. For provolone, enhanced color and flavor come with age although the cheese may be aged for as few as a month or two, or up to one year. The more yellow the color, the more ripe and flavorful. With a firm and slightly elastic texture, provolone is an excellent cheese for melting, or on sandwiches.
Used almost exclusively in classic Italian dishes such as lasagna and manicotti, ricotta (Italian for re-cooked) is actually not cheese, by a by-product of other Italian cheeses. The whey from these other cheeses are combined and re-cooked to create ricotta cheese. It has a grainy texture, but is very smooth when used in either savoury or sweet dishes. Ricotta cheese is also used in classic Italian cheesecakes.
Take the time to explore the centuries-old creations by Italian cheese makers during your next culinary adventure. Plan a wine and cheese tasting party with your friends or experiment with some new recipes using these flavorful Italian delights, ultimately expanding and broadening your culinary palate.