Taleggio is one of those cheeses you either hate or love. With its soft, sticky texture, stinky aroma and washed-rind flavor, I am firmly in the love, love, love category. And seeing it produced in an authentic alpine dairy was high on my to-do list while in Italy this week.
Simona, my tour guide from Cellar Tours, did not disappoint. She put 22 of us on a bus and we proceeded to motor up the steep, windy roads of the Valtaleggio valley in the Orobian Pre-Alps. Two hours later, a little car-sick, but in awe of the alpine view, we arrived in the remote village of Vedeseta, home to cheesemaker Arturo Locatelli’s artisan cheese plant, where he was just finishing up that day’s production of a cheese I had never heard of: Strachitunt.
Simona explained to us that the name Strachitunt derives from the Bergamo dialect for “stracchino tondo,” and is produced with whole raw cow’s milk using the ancient method of layering the evening curd (commonly called “cold curd”) and the morning curd (“hot curd”). We arrived just in time to witness Arturo scooping “hot curd” out of the vat and placing on top of the “cold curd” in round cheese forms, like this:
From there, it is allowed to drain on tables and is flipped twice over the course of two days, in which it looks like this:
It’s hard to tell from the picture, but Strachitunt is actually a blue cheese without any added blue mold into the milk. During the minimum aging of 75 days, holes are made into the wheels to encourage the growth of mold which is naturally present in the cheese. It smells like a blue cheese, looks like a blue cheese, tastes like a blue cheese, all with no penicillium roqueforti or other blue mold added. It also has two different textures, because of the layering of the curd. Finished wheels look like this:
Strachitunt is one of the many alpine Italian cheeses that was made for centuries, but then neglected in the 20th Century. In just the past 10 years, the cheese has made a comeback in its hometown Valtaleggio region. It is available in the United States through Forever Cheese.
After introducing us to Strachitunt, Arturo also made time to tell us about the Taleggio squares he had made the day before, and which were ready to turn while we were there. He showed us the straws that are placed on the bottom of the stainless steel drying tables to give Taleggio its famous rind texture. You can also see the plastic brand that is placed under the Taleggio after turning, which is imprinted into wheels of DOP Taleggio, like this:
Arturo makes one of just a few raw-milk Taleggios available on the market, and makes two or three vats of Taleggio a week. Each vat, which holds 1,000 liters of milk, will make 72 squares of Taleggio. However, since it is still summer, and the cows are on high alpine pastures, or alpages, they are not producing as much milk as they will in the winter when they stand around in barns all day and eat hay. So he will be under-production of Taleggio until about November.
All of his Arturo’s Taleggio is purchased and aged by the artisan cheese aging company of casArrigoni, located a few miles down the mountain in the village of Peghera. CasArrigoni is a third-generation cheese aging family, and owners Tina Arrigoni, her daughter, Adele Ravasio, and nephew, Cesare Brissoni, gave us a 2-hour tour and tasting at the impressive modern facility that prides itself in aging cheese in the traditional manner of placing Taleggio in wooden boxes covered with cheese cloths. Here’s what the cheese looks like when we peeked under the cloths:
As it matures, Taleggio is aged in four different successive curing rooms, each at a different temperature and humidity. Each square is flipped and washed at least once weekly, and every week, the box and cloths are cleaned. Cesare showed us how it’s done.
CasArrigoni ages its Taleggio for 50 days to achieve a maximum flavor and texture. Most industrial Taleggio is aged for a mere 35 days. Taleggio exported to the United States is put on a boat at about 30 days, so that in a month, it arrives at port at the magical age of 60 days, the minimum age a raw-milk cheese can be imported into the United States. The folks at casArrigoni also hand package every square of Taleggio.
By law, squares of Taleggio must weigh between 2.2 – 2.4 kilos. The Arrigoni family is firmly committed to aging Taleggio in only a traditional matter, and is proud of the product it puts on the market.
“The economy of this valley is based on Taleggio. It is important for us to stay here and age the cheese where it is made,” Adele said. “That’s why we still work by hand and personally choose each piece of cheese for our clients.” With 20 employees and a third generation in strong position to carry on the Arrigoni name, it looks like Taleggio will continue to be aged in the Valtaleggio valley for a long time.