I’m not going to lie: when third generation affineur Carlo Fiori Guffanti led us through a glass door, down a series of steps, and into the underground aging cellars of the renowned Luigi Guffanti affineur house of hanging provolone, pecorino, parmigiano reggiano and rounds of cheeses I had only ever seen in books, I started to cry. Even in a room full of 20 members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals on the first day of a 10-day Grand Cheese Tour of Northern Italy, I could not contain the emotion of being in a room where so much history, care and passion of this simple, but oh-so-complex thing we call cheese, has taken place over the course of 150 years.
It could be that we arrived after 36 hours of traveling via delayed planes, bus and automobile, or that my luggage was “untraceable” via British Airways, or that I was facing the fact I’d be wearing the same clothes I left home in for days, but the emotion that cheese can elicit always surprises me. And Carlo Fiori Guffanti, our tour guide for a 2-hour visit to one of the most famous aging houses of Europe summed it up best: “Cheese is easy, but not simple.”
An exceptionally kind, small man with bright eyes, fluent in Italian, French and German, but halting English, Carlo Fiori knows cheese. His grandfather, Luigi Guffanti, began to season Gorgonzola in 1876 in an abandoned silver mine in Valganna, in the Varese province of the Lombardy region of northern Italy. With the mine’s consistent year-round temperature and humidity, those first Guffanti cheeses matured so well that Luigi quickly cornered the markets. His sons, Carlo and Mario, at the beginning of the 1900′s, exported as far as Argentina and California, where people of the Piedmont and Lombardy had emigrated.
Today, Carlo Fiori Guffanti is the elder of two upcoming Guffanti generations set to take over an operation aging 180 types of cheese. And if he teaches them half of what he taught us over the course of two hours, the Guffanti house of cheese will endure forever.
Here’s how our tour started: with the stomach of a goat, aged five years, cut into tiny pieces for us to eat. It turns out that goat stomach tastes a lot like goat cheese, except stronger. Carlo’s point: cheese starts with basic ingredients: milk, enzymes taken from the stomach of an animal, cultures and salt.
“Cheese was not invented, it was discovered. It is the result of men who discovered that instead of eating animals for protein, they could have them eat green grass in the summer, hay in the winter, and then use their milk to make a new kind of protein: cheese,” Carlo told us. “Cheese is the only way man has found to preserve milk, and it has changed the world.”
At that moment, he brought out a board of nearly a dozen Robiola cheese rounds, one of Guffanti’s more famous cheeses. They ranged in age from just right to really scary, but Carlo’s point was that they were all still edible. “Cheese never dies. It just changes,” he said. I made the mistake of referring to him as an amazing “affineur,” and he quickly corrected me that there is no word in Italian for a man who ages cheese for a living. “Affineur” is French. The closest words are “stagionatura”, which means seasoning, or “affinate”, which means refined, or improved. I guess perhaps Carlo is an “affinater” which is a word I pretty much just made up.
After leading us through a series of caves, or cheese aging rooms containing some of the most beautiful cheeses I’ve ever seen, including: Pecorino Foglie, a pressed sheep’s milk cheese from Tuscany, wrapped in walnut leaves and rubbed daily with olive oil; Piacentinu Ennese DOP, a sheep’s milk cheese from Sicilia infused with saffron and black peppercorns, and Quartirolo Lombardo DOP, a rectangular cheese similar to Tallegio, but made with milk from the end of summer, Carlo led us down a hallway lined with Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padana, and a wooden shelf of wheels marked with names and dates. These cheeses had all been made in honor of the birth of his nephews, and will be eaten on a special occasion in the boys’ lives. “This is our tradition,” Carlo said.
After the tour, it was time to go upstairs. “I have shown you the cheeses. Now they will speak for themselves,” Carlo told us. And they did. The Guffanti staff had set up an impressive spread of more than a dozen Guffanti aged cheeses, including a one-year aged Gorgonzla Piccante, the cheese that first put Luigi Guffanti on the map.
After we were nearly done, Carlo brought out two more cheeses: my favorite, Robiolo, and a special treat: 2-year Comte, cut from a series of wheels we had drooled over in the aging rooms.
Then it was time to say goodbye. Many cheek kisses and thank you’s later, I talked Carlo into signing the brim of the Luigi Guffanti hat I had bought in the cheese shop. “Wear it the next time you come to see me,” he said with a smile. Will do.
Next up: Bra Cheese Fair and checking off another item on Jeanne’s bucket list.
All photos by Uriah Carpenter.