On Location: Caseificio San Paolo Parmigiano-Reggiano

A visit to northern Italy wouldn’t be complete without seeing the production of Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of Italian cheeses. This week, we visited Caseificio San Paolo, a cooperative made up of 13 dairy farmers in the province of Modena. Twelve of the farmers milk about 70 cows, while one milks about 1,000 cows. All house their animals in freestall barns and feed them hay and grains.

Two men: lead Cheesemaker Gimmi Ambrogi, who continually had an unlit cigarette perched perilously on his lips, and dairy farmer Fabrizio Consoli, who milks 70 Friesians, gave us a tour of their cheese plant, where 18 small copper vats are each used to produce two wheels of raw milk, 83-pound wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano starting each week day at 6:30 a.m.

Whole milk from the delivery of morning milk is added to part-skim milk from the previous evening, made by holding the delivery of evening milk in large shallow stainless steel tables to allow the cream to separate. Natural whey culture is added, and the milk is heated. Calf rennet is then added, and the mixture is left to curdle for 10 to 12 minutes. Cheesemakers then use a special circular cheese knife to cut the curd into small pieces, and heat the mass again.

After being left to settle for about 45 minutes, the curd is scooped up in a piece of cloth and divided in two. Because we arrived a little late, Ambrogi demonstrated the technique for us. The curd is then placed in plastic molds and flipped every two hours.

The next day, the cheese is put into a stainless steel forms that are tightened with a spring-powered latch. After two days, the latch is released and a long plastic belt imprinted with the Parmigiano-Reggiano name, the plant number, and month and year of production is put around the cheese and the metal form is latched tight again.

After three days, each wheel is put into brine to absorb salt for 20 days. The brine is changed every 3-4 months by draining half the liquid from each tub and adding new saltwater. Wheels are rotated about 1/8 turn each day so that all part of the wheel gets soaked. On the day we visited, about 1,200 wheels were soaking in brine.

After brining, the wheels are moved to aging rooms in the plant for 12 months, where each is placed on wooden shelves. Each cheese and shelf is cleaned robotically every seven days, and the cheese is also flipped at that time.

At one year of age, a master grader from the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano inspects each and every wheel of cheese, using a hammer to tap the wheel at various locations, listening for any defect cracks in the wheel. The cheeses that pass are then heat branded on the rind with the Consorzio’s logo. Failed wheels are marked with lines or crosses and are generally sold for grating.

Caseificio San Paolo is currently aging 40,000 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The cooperative owns several aging warehouses in the Emilia-Romagna region.

After the tour, we were lucky enough to enjoy a tasting right of wheels that were 18-, 24- and 36-months of age. Ambrogi even sprinkled the 36-month with balsamic vinegar for us, which was amazing.

Many thanks to all the folks at Caseificio San Paolo for your hospitality and cheese tasting!

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

On Location: Making Taleggio & Strachitunt in Vedeseta, Italy

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.

Next up: witnessing the making and aging of the king of cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano at Caseificio San Paolo.
All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

On Location: Beppino Occelli in Valcasotto, Italy

Before traveling this week to northern Italy, I was already a big fan of Beppino Occelli butter, made in Italy and available in American in select specialty stores. But I never realized the extent to which the company has transformed an alpine community once in decline into a real “cheese village,” aging rare Langa and Cuneo mountain cheeses using traditional Old World methods I assumed were long lost.

After driving two hours from the Village of Bra up a series of mountains through tinier villages full of people who looked at our bus like we were from outer space, our group arrived at Beppino Occelli in the hamlet of Valcasotto. In 1976, Mr. Occelli began restoring the community’s buildings into cheese aging facilities, and today, the community is home to a world-class underground affinage facility, restored flour mill, retail shop and restaurant.

Felice Costardt, a young affineur, was generous enough to give us an hour-long tour of the extensive aging cellars, which are truly underground rock cellars that look exactly like the cobwebbed hand-hewn rock rooms below the farm house in which I grew up. Humidity in the cellars is controlled by gravity-fed, pure spring water transported through a series of wooden troughs (pictured below), while each room is temperature controlled via more modern air in-and out-take methods.

Felice is in his 20s and is one of five full-time affineurs at Beppino Occelli. He came to the trade of aging cheeses by accident, after being hired as a chef by Mr. Occelli. After gaining more than 100 pounds while working in the kitchen, he begged for a different job, and began to work in the aging cellars, caring for the cheeses and learning from the previous “cheese master.” Today, it is nearly impossible to believe the young man once weighed 300 pounds. “This job suits me much better,” he said.

The first cheese we learned about was Cusie, a Beppino Occelli original, which takes its name from the local dialect and means “that which there is” or as Felice put it: “What’s in the cheese?” It  refers to the fact that Cusie is made with whatever milk is available, and can be a blend of cow and sheep’s milk or cow and goat’s milk. After production, it is aged 45 days in barrels filled with grape skins and then placed on wooden shelving for 2 months to age.

When young, it is turned two to three times per week and is then moved to a second cellar with a different humidity level, where it is aged another two to four months. Here, it forms unique molds on the rind, ranging from brown to white to orange. It is flipped once per week. It is then transferred to a third cellar for six months or more, with a lower humidity level. At each stage of the aging, different types of wooden shelves are used, ranging from apple to pear to cherry wood. Felice mentioned he never uses chestnut wood, because the wood is rich in tannins and would stain the cheese with dark spots. At a final age of 18 to 24 months, before being sent to market, Cusie is vacuum cleaned and stamped.

Several more cheeses are aged in the maze of underground aging rooms, but my favorite was entering the Castelmagno di Alpeggio DOP cheese aging room, which contained a large manger of dried hay – yes, dried hay in a cheese aging room. The cheese is unique in both its production method – the curds are crushed, broken twice, and then pressed into molds – and also in its aging practice, in which it attains its characteristic flavor of aromatic mountain herbs from absorbing the aroma of actual dried mountain herbs in the aging cellar.

As if this weren’t impressive enough, Felice explained that in ancient times, the rock-walled room in which we were standing was the basement of an inn, and housed the animals of its guests. So the manger does not seem out of place to the folks aging cheese there, but it certainly seemed out of place to Americans used to sanitary rooms with stainless steel floor drains.

Following the cellar tour, we were treated to an amazing lunch and cheese tasting at Beppino Occelli of the following cheeses:

  • Tuma dla Paja: this soft and creamy mixed milk cheese sports a white, wrinkled crust with an aroma of hazelnuts. In Italian legend, at the end of the harvest in the farmhouses of the Langa, it was customary to place a fresh ‘tuma’ to mature under straw, or “paja” in the Piedmontese dialect. You can occasionally find this cheese in the United States, as it was named the best cheese at the 1997 Fancy Food Show in New York.
  • Toma del Monte Regale: made from raw cow’s milk, this soft cheese has tiny holes in the paste and is milky and buttery. Think Taleggio without the stink. Yum.
  • Valcasotto Il Formaggio Del Re: in the past, Valcasotto farmers would offer their cheeses to the royal castle in exchange for the use of the meadows. Tradition says the square-shape of this cheese came about because it perfectly fit into the saddle of mules for transport to the king’s palace, and its intense (read: stinky) scent reminded the king of the sun and the fragrant grass of the pastures.
  • Ocelli in foglie di Castagna: produced from goat or sheep and cow’s milk in quantities that vary according to the availability of the season, this cheese is left to age for about a year and a half. The wheels are then wrapped in chestnut leaves which imbue them with a strong flavor. Interestingly enough, some wheels used to be wrapped in tobacco leaves, until the company was forced to put health warnings on the cheese label about the risk of using tobacco. Thanks for nothing, label nazis.
  • Escarun: the rarest of all cheeses invented by Beppino Ocelli, its name means “little herd.” Made from the milk of sheep and cows grazing the highest pasutres of the Alps of Cuneo, the cheese sports a thin, dimpled rind and finely grained, crumbly texture. Each Escarun wheel is branded and numbered, almost as a unique piece of art. This is the largest piece of cheese pictured in the foreground, next to the spinach, below.

Of course, no tasting at Beppino Occelli would be complete without butter! And I’m pretty sure we ate our weight in the gold stuff.

Thank you to all the wonderful folks at Beppino Occelli for a truly remarkable experience. I will be searching out your cheeses from now on in the United States!

Next up: Making & Tasting Tallegio on the mountain top of Vedeseto, Italy

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

    On Location: Quattro Portoni Caseificio Water Buffalo Dairy in Italy

    Alert readers are expecting today’s blog to be on Beppino Occelli in Valcasotto, Italy, and I do promise that will be coming. But it’s not every day that I visit a water buffalo farm, and I can’t wait to share my excitement. So here we go!

    It had been three years since I last visited and wrote about Dubi Ayalon’s water buffalo farm near Plain, Wisconsin, but the memory of a giant snorting bull with a ring in his nose trotting menacingly toward me was front of mind when we pulled into the Quattro Portoni Caseificio water buffalo dairy yesterday near Cologno al Serio, Italy.

    Visiting a working water buffalo dairy was high on my list of to-dos when I began planning this year’s Wisconsin Cheese Originals’ cheese and wine tour of northern Italy. While almost all Mozzarella di Bufala is made in southern Italy as part of the Government Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP, there are a couple of buffalo dairies in northern Italy. We visited the farm of the Gritti family, who in 2000, decided get off the commodity milk train, sold their herd of Friesian cows that they had milked since 1982, switched to water buffalo, and added value to their farm by building a farmstead creamery.

    Brothers Bruno and Alfio Gritti, along with their wives, Elena and Marina, and their beautiful daughters – two in graduate school to become doctors, and the third to be a lawyer – today make their own cheese and yogurt from water buffalo milk and operate an on-farm retail store. Bruno is the cheesemaker and Alfio is the herdsman, but the whole family is involved either through marketing, sales or just doing chores. The entire family was on hand to enthusiastically give us a spectacular tour of their family farm, followed by a tasting of nearly a dozen cheeses they make on site.

    First of all, let me just say that water buffalo are not necessarily attractive creatures. They naturally look a little mean, and because they have lightening-quick reflexes, their sudden movements can make you think are going to trample and eat you. This of course is not the case, not only because they are herbivores, but also because the genetics of breeding calm, gentle water buffalo has been underway in Italy for hundreds of years.

    The Gritti family has 900 water buffalo and milk the cows, which live in large freestall barns, twice a day in a double-15 parlor. Each cow gives, on average, about 7 liters, or almost two gallons of milk a day. This is incredibly low compared to Holstein cows, who think nothing of pumping out six to nine gallons a day. Water buffalo, however, live and give milk longer than the average U.S. dairy cow, with the Gritti’s buffalo averaging 10 to 12 lactations (they just sold a cow last week that was a whopping 21 years of age). Cows must get pregnant to give milk, and in the dairy industry, we measure a cow’s life span by how often they get pregnant. So that means the average water buffalo on the Gritti farm gives birth to 10 to 12 calves over the course of 10 to 12 years (their gestation period is 10 months). This is far longer than the average U.S. Holstein cow who lives to perhaps see four lactations in her productive lifetime.

    We were lucky to see an hour-old newborn calf while at the farm. It stood for the first time while we were watching, and as we were cheering, promptly teetered on its new-found legs and fell down. We left it to bond with its mother and aunts (the buffalo are left to give birth in small groups of cows to calm them) and walked to the calf pens, where calves are kept until they are about one week old and are bottle-fed with buckets. After one week, they move to another pen, and learn how to eat corn and grain on their own. That takes about another 3 weeks. They are then moved in groups to larger pens, and gradually moved to successive pens as they age. The males are sold at 14 months for meat, and desirable females are kept as heifers to breed and give birth when they are two years old. The Gritti family uses both bulls and artificial insemination to impregnate the cows.

    Anyone who has been on a dairy farm knows there are two main outputs to cows: milk and manure. In this case, the manure is hauled to a local, cooperative manure digestor, where the methane is converted into electricity. Meanwhile, the milk is pumped via an underground pipeline to the cheese plant and creamery across the road. There, all of the farm’s milk – 500,000 liters, or more than 1 million pounds a years – is transformed into an array of award-winning buffalo milk cheeses and yogurt.

    Bruno explained to us that he did not necessarily grow up wanting to become a cheesemaker, but he is the kind of man who likes a challenge, and isn’t afraid to try something new. After the family decided to move forward with water buffalo, he went back to school and took a short course in Lombardy in cheesemaking. He then partnered with a cheese technician from Piedmont for six months, working on cheese recipes and to perfect the cheesemaking process.

    Then he hired two young men who had just graduated from university in Milan with degrees in dairy science and trained them to be his full-time cheesemakers. In Italy, teenagers can go to a special high school to learn practical cheesemaking skills, but Bruno was not interested in hiring someone with experience.

    “I was looking for someone with a virgin mind when it came to making cheese,” Bruno said. “We were doing something completely different here, and I wanted someone who could think differently.” The plan worked, as the two men are still on board as full-time cheesemakers, and the farm now has an employee roster of 12 people.

    Because the farm is located outside the official Government Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP region, the Grittis make only enough fresh mozzarella to sell locally. What they really focus on is creating aged cheeses from buffalo milk that are traditionally made with cow’s milk. Their most famous cheese is Blu di Bufala, which won the Best Italian Cheese award at the 2012 World Cheese Awards. A blue-veined cheese with square shape and a dry and wrinkly crust, it is mild and creamy, showcasing the natural sweetness of water buffalo milk.

    Another well-known cheese is Quadrello, a soft cheese, made according to the local Bergamo region’s traditional recipe for washed-rind cheese. The paste is straw-yellow in color, with small holes, elastic and soft especially near the crust. The Grittis also makes Crescenza, Ricotta, Caciocavvalo, Scamorza and a wide variety of what we usually think to be cow’s milk cheeses using water buffalo milk. Aging takes place in modern, above-ground, temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms.

    All but one cheese, Granbu, a semi-hard cheese made in a tall wheel that is similar in texture and flavor to the Swiss Sbrinz, are made using pasteurized milk. Sixty percent of the cheese production is exported, primarily to Germany, France and Singapore. About 25 percent is exported to the United States, where it is distributed exclusively through Forever Cheese in New York. Many of Quattro Portoni Caseificio cheeses are available in Whole Foods stores in Chicago.

    Many thanks to the entire Gritti family for their amazing hospitality, tour and tasting! And tomorrow – I promise – a look inside the underground Beppino Occelli cheese aging caves.
    All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

    On Location: Bra Cheese Fair in Piedmont, Italy

    Known across the world as simply “Cheese,” the Bra Cheese Festival in Piedmont, Italy is one of the biggest cheese affairs in the world. Organized by Slow Food and held for five days every two years in mid-September, the event draws more than 150,000 turophiles who turn the village of Bra into a pedestrian-only celebration of all things food. And since I first learned about the event in 2005, it’s been on my bucket list to attend.

    This year was my lucky year, as I organized my biannual international cheese tour for members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals around the Bra Festival date. Our group of 20 arrived on Saturday to a day of perfect weather and split up into mini-groups, each accompanied by our own translators and graduates of the University of Gastronomic Sciences. We set off with an agenda to taste rare cheeses, drink local beer, enjoy local wine, and basically eat for the next seven hours straight.

    Now, while the event’s overall aim is to promote regional Italian cheesemakers and local cheeses that are either in danger of extinction or exploitation via industrial commercialization, there are cheeses featured from around the world that you’ll never have the opportunity eat unless they are handed to you on the tip of a knife by a cheesemaker at Bra.

    First up was a cheese called Macagn, a whole raw cow’s milk made in the mountains of the Piedmont region. Cheesemaker Gino Garbaccio gave us a tasting of the cheese made at three different elevations, at two different ages. At just one week old, this cheese has more flavor than many cheeses I’ve tasted at six months, and at three months, it felt, looked and tasted mature.

    The neat thing about Macagn is that it is made at every milking. My handy dandy “2013 Slow Food edition of Italian Cheeses” says this probably came about because of the need to take advantage of the milk’s natural temperature. Straw-yellow in color, the cheese contains scattered eyes and turns golden as it ages.

    The other thing about Macagn is that each of the nine cheesemakers who make it use different make procedures and milk from animals on a variety of pastures at different elevations. We learned the Slow Food Presidium is working with these cheesemakers to draft production regulations to establish a uniformity and to give this summer mountain cheese a distinctive personality of its own. Perhaps the next time I visit “Cheese,” Macagn will be even better!

    Just down the street, we encountered our next rarity, Montebore, a Piedmont-based cow and sheep’s mixed milk cheese shaped like a wedding cake. The cheese has a long history, dating back to 300 A.D. It was made continually until 1982, when the last cheesemaker decided to stop production. Thanks to the Slow Food Presidium, the unique cheese made a comeback in 1999, when two cheesemakers learned the secret of making the ancient cheese from Carolina Bracco, the last of the Montebore cheesemakers.

    Montebore is made with 75 percent cow’s milk and 25 percent sheep’s milk. The curd is cut with a wooden curd knife and placed in molds called “ferslin”, and then turned and salted. Three cheeses of decreasing diameter are removed from the molds, and allowed to stand for four to five hours. They are then washed with warm, slightly salted water and left to mature, one atop the other, for a period ranging from seven days to two months.

    At one month old, the cheese tasted fresh and spongy. Yum. We also tasted it at 2 months old (mushroomy), 3 months old (clean and complex) and at 5 months old, which was beyond its prime. The rind had darkened to a soft grey color and smelled extremely of ammonia. If you ever get a chance to eat this cheese, I’d recommend the 3-month age.

    Next up was the rare Morlacco di Vacca Burlina, made in the Italian provinces of Treviso, Belluno and Vicenza. The cheese is crafted from the milk of Burlina cows, a highly endangered breed (there are only 270 left in the world) that have the unfortunate characteristic of not giving much milk. Farmers breeding the cows are currently working with the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy to encourage more farmers to use the cows and save the breed.

    Morlacco is a soft, uncooked, low-fat cheese made from milk from the evening milking, skimmed by allowing the cream to rise to the top, to which whole milk from the following morning’s milking is added. The cheesemaking technique has remained the same over the centuries. The milk is heated to 38-42 degrees Celsius  and coagulated with liquid calf’s rennet. The curd is cut up into walnut-sized lumps, left to stand for a short while, and then transferred to wicker baskets. The whey is allowed to drain. The cheeses are then salted and carefully turned over several times a day for 12 days. They are ready to eat at about 2 weeks, but can mature up to 5 months. We tried a cheese at both 2 weeks and 3 months, and both were outstanding. If I could get this cheese in the United States, I’d eat it every day.

    While we tasted dozens of cheeses throughout the day, the last, but not least cheese I’d like to mention is San Ste, named for the patron saint of Liguaria, Saint Steven. While the cheese was made for centuries, it went extinct sometime in the 20th Century. Caseificio Val D’Aveto dairy revived the traditional cheese, making it with milk from Bruno Alpina and Cabannina cows that graze in the local pastures in the province of Genoa.

    To make the cheese, raw milk is heated to 35 degrees Celsius and inoculated with powdered calf’s rennet. It is then left to coagulate for 35 minutes. Next, the mass is cut into rice-sized curd, collected in a cloth and place on a board, where it is kneaded. Coarse salt is added and the mixture is transferred to forms, which are then pressed to drain off the whey. Next, the rounds are removed and soaked in brine for two days to harden the find. Finally, San Ste is moved to a damp, cool cellar and aged for at least 60 days, where it is regularly turned and oiled.

    Cheesemaker Silvio Cella was extremely kind to us, and led us through a tasting of  San Ste at 2 months, 4 months and 8 months. At each stage, the cheese just got better. The 2 month-cheese was more yellow in color than the 8-month cheese, as it had been made in the summer when the cows were on pasture, and the 8-month cheese was made during the winter when the cows were eating hay. However, the butterfat from each of the ages stuck heartily to my tongue. Yum.

    Cella was also kind enough to give us a sample of his company’s raw-milk yogurt, as well as an aged ricotta-type cheese named Prescinseua that is made from cream instead of whey. I had never had anything like it, but it is well-known in Genoa. It’s made by allowing cow’s milk to sour, and once coagulated, filtered through a cloth. The cheese is traditionally eaten by sprinkling with sugar and served at the table. It is also used in the kitchen, especially for Easter cakes.

    Over the course of 7 hours, I learned about and tasted more than a dozen cheeses I never knew existed. Thank you to Slow Food and the village of Bra for hosting such an amazing event. I hope to visit you again someday.

    Next up: visiting the Beppino Occelli cheese aging caves in Valcasotto, Italy.

    All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

    The Science Behind Alpine Cheeses

    Photo courtesy of Gastronomichael.blogspot.com

    Following up on a Wisconsin report expected to be published later this month that concludes there are “quantified differences in color, texture, melting points and other attributes” between pasture-fed and conventional dairy products, an Italian study has taken it one step further, determining there are scientific differences in cheeses made between different high-altitude Alpine grass pastures, resulting in different flavor profiles of well-known Alpine cheeses.

    The study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry,  confirms that not only does pasture-grazed cheese taste different than cheese made from the milk of non-grazing cows, the cheeses made from cows grazing on two different sides of a mountain can contain enough different chemical compounds to affect the cheese’s flavor.

    The revelation comes courtesy of Giovanna Contarini, a food chemist at the Centro di Ricerca per le Produzioni Foraggere e Lattiero-Casearie (a dairy and crops research center in Lodi, Italy). Recently, she conducted an experiment in which she took milk from cows living on two sides of a mountain in northern Italy. Both pastures consisted primarily of fescue and bent grass, but each received different amounts of sunshine, and from different directions. One pasture also had bit more yarrow growing in it than the other.

    Milk from cows grazing in each pasture was then used to make dozens of wheels of the local cheese specialty: Asiago. When Contarini and her team analyzed the cheeses, they found they differed in the amounts of hydrocarbons and transfatty acids. In addition, both grass-based cheese batches contained more terpenes than cheeses made from the milk of non-grazing cows.

    Terpenes are chemical compounds typically found in the milk of mountain-pastured cows and come from flowers growing among the grass. “In the plains cows, you don’t find any terpenes,” Contarini said in an interview with National Public Radio last month. Scientists aren’t sure whether terpenes affect cheese flavor, but they do consider them a marker of mountain cheese.

    Contarini confirmed that where cows live changes what they eat – and that difference is detectable in the cheese made from their milk.

    “In the mountain areas, the cows are free to pasture,” Contarini told NPR. They eat mostly a mix of fresh grasses and other vegetation. Cattle raised at lower elevations in Italy are kept in farms and eat a prepared feed that contains some dried grasses and some fat and vitamins. “Consequently, the rumen digestion is different,” she said.

    Contarini’s research may one day be used to prove whether some traditional cheeses, such as bra d’alpeggio or Formai de Mut dell’Ata Valle Brembana, are indeed made with only the milk of mountain-grass grazing cows. The practice of making summer mountain cheeses is a dying art in northern Italy, Contarini said.

    “Young people don’t want to stay in the mountain because there are poor opportunities for work,” so they often move to the city, she says. If there’s no one left in the mountains to raise the cows and make the cheese, she says: “We risk losing an important product.”

    To taste two authentic European Alpine cheeses and two Wisconsin Alpine-style cheeses, sign up now to attend the  May 14 Alpine Style Cheeses: The Taste of Terroir class, led by Jeanne Carpenter at the Firefly Coffeehouse in Oregon. Attendees will learn why cheeses made in the mountain regions of France and Switzerland taste different than cheeses made elsewhere, and compare them to Wisconsin Alpine-style cheeses. Visit www.wicheeseclass.com to sign up now, as all classes sell out in advance.

    Photo by Uriah Carpenter

    Italy vs Wisconsin Cheeses: Can the New World Compete?

    With the growth in quality and quantity of Wisconsin artisan and specialty cheeses in the past decade, I am often asked: “Can Wisconsin cheeses today rival the great European imports?”

    Well, yes and no. While there are scores of amazing European cheeses that simply don’t have an equal in America, there are perhaps an equal amount of American Original cheeses that don’t have a rival in Europe. That’s because the traditions that often make classic European cheeses so amazing also limits innovation in crafting new ones.

    Here in America, we’ve got no lack of innovation. With less than 300 years of tradition to our name, we’ve got no PDO, DOC or AOC cheeses. Virtually anything goes. Some might even argue American cheesemakers have cheesemaking freedom that many European cheesemakers might envy.

    But that doesn’t mean American, and especially Wisconsin cheesemakers, don’t still look to their European counterparts for inspiration. Perhaps no country knows this better than Italy. Wisconsin cheesemakers have been studying Italian cheeses for more than 100 years, trying to duplicate the Italian greats.

    Here’s a look at three different categories of Italian cheeses and three Wisconsin cheesemakers who are striving to equal, or might I dare say rival, their Italian counterparts.

    Round 1: Asiago Fresco 
    Agriform of Italy vs Saxon Creamery of Wisconsin

    A younger version (aged only 20-40 days) of its more famous big brother, Asiago Fresco is a mild, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese, and until about 15 years ago, not readily available for export to the United States.

    In Italy, Asiago Fresco is made in the Veneto region, located in the far northwest quadrant of the country. It’s named after the village of Asiago, one of seven villages situated on a high plateau in the Italian Alps. The region has a colorful history. The locals, most of whom have German roots, as the region was populated in the 1200’s by Bavarians, still speak their own language, a German/Italian mix. Because the area was originally so isolated, the residents of the seven villages banded together in the 1300’s to receive protection from three powerful families – the Ezzelini, Scaligeri and Visconti families. The region had its own political and administrative autonomy until Napoleon invaded in 1807. Then the territory came under Austrian rule until it was annexed to Italy through an international accord in 1866.

    Today, two traditional Asiago cheeses are made: Asiago Pressato, made with whole milk and pressed, is aged only a matter of days. It is mild and buttery. The second, Asiago d’Allevo, is made from partially skimmed milk and and is sold in three stages of ripeness: mezzano, aged 3 to 8 months; vecchio, aged 9 to 18 months; and stravecchio, aged up to 2 years. All types are found in the U.S. market.

    Asiago Fresco, meanwhile, seems to be a newer hybrid. It is made from whole milk, pasteurized, and aged 20-40 days. It much more citrusy in flavor. The most common Italian version found in the U.S. is made by Agri-form, one of the larger producers in the Veneto region, and distributed by Atalanta Foods. It is an excellent table cheese and melts well on a panini.

    The Wisconsin version of Asiago Fresco is made by Saxon Creamery of Cleveland. In the spring, summer and fall, many of the Saxon cheeses are made from the milk of pastured cows. Originally owned by the Karl Klessig and Jerry Heimerl families, last year, Wisconsin dairy farmer and veterinarian Dr. Kenn Buelow invested in the company. Cheeses are now made by Master Cheesemaker Jeff Mattes, who is rapidly branching out into some different styles, including the little known Asiago Fresco.

    Mattes delivers. The Saxon version is equally citrusy and fresh tasting, with no off flavors and a clean finish. The texture is almost the same as the Italian version, and the cheeses are nearly identical. Find Saxon Creamery Asiago Fresco at Glorioso’s in Milwaukee.

    Round 2: Fontina 
    Fontina D’Aosta DOP of Italy vs BelGioioso Cheese of Wisconsin

    Dating back to the Middle Ages, Fontina originated in Italy’s mountainous Val d’Aosta region near the Swiss border. History isn’t clear on whether it took its name from the village of Fontinaz or nearby Mont Fontin, but two things are clear: Fontina is a) considered one of the most versatile cheeses in the world, and 2) it has often been copied.

    Today, versions of Fontina are made in Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and of course, the United States. The Danish and Swedish versions are typically covered in red paraffin wax, made from pasteurized milk, and are mild in taste. The Italian version, however, is made twice a day from the unpasteurized milk of Valdostana cows that graze on Alpine grasses, and is a washed-rind cheese. Aged three months, it is bathed with a mixture of brine and brevibacterium linens, which leaves it with an orangish-brown rind and smelly aroma.

    Fontina D’Aosta is an Italian DOP cheese, meaning it is name-protected and may only be made in the Val d’Aosta region. It is elastic and supple, with a rich, sweet, buttery flavor and mushroomy aroma.

    The Wisconsin version of Italian Fontina is made by BelGioioso Cheese. Aged more than 60 days, this is a very appealing, semi-soft mild cheese with a silky texture and a sweet, buttery flavor. It does not, however have the Fontina D’Aosta’s washed-rind, so is instead much milder in flavor and smell.  Whereas the Italian version has small irregular holes, BelGioioso Fontina is smooth and creamy. That’s probably because it is intended for an American market, which, as a rule, does not overly care for stinky cheeses.

    BelGioioso is no stranger to Italian cheese. In 1979, a man by the name of Errico Auricchio moved his family from Italy to America to start his own cheese company. A hundred years before, his great-grandfather had started an Italian cheese company named Auricchio. Today, it is the largest producer of Provolone in Italy.

    But because Errico wanted to do his own thing, he moved to Wisconsin and brought along a couple Master Euoprean cheesemakers with him. He began making authentic Italian cheeses, and today, has built a cheese empire, building seven factories, all in the Fox Valley, each specializing in a different style of Italian cheese, from Burrata to Provolone to Gorgonzola and beyond. Each is made using Wisconsin milk from surrounding farms. BelGioioso does Wisconsin Italian cheeses proud, and their Fontina is no exception. You can find it in most specialty cheese departments.

    Round 3: Parmesan
    Academia Barilla Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP vs Sartori of Wisconsin

    Known as the King of Cheeses, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano is a Italian DOP cheese managed by The Consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a non-profit organization, founded in 1934, and comprised of Parmigiano cheese producers from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantova and Bologna.

    The mammoth cheese, considered by some to be worth its weight in gold, is made in large copper cauldrons and formed into 85-pound drums. Quality is based on five factors that have been maintained throughout centuries to make this cheese one of the most famous in the world.

    First and foremost is quality of pastures and quality of milk. Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced with  milk from two milkings – evening and morning – with milk from the morning partially skimmed. The milk itself comes from cows raised on selected pastures only in the five approved regions.

    Second: artisanal production methods have been unchanged for seven centuries. The Consortium is made up of a group of 650 small, artisanal cheese producers located in a specific zone of production and are subject by law to preserve the centuries old production methods and quality of the product.

    Third is the natural aging process, which can last up to three years. By the end, wheels have developed a compact, grainy texture and strong, but not spicy, flavor. Parmigiano falls into the category of hard Italian cheeses generally referred to as grana, based on their granular texture.

    Fourth: Complete absence of preservatives, additives or colorings in the milk and cheese. Period.

    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the strict control of the Consortium. It defends and protects the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano, overseeing how it is used and where it is produced. The Consortium is also responsible for building the brand and monitoring the standards of production.

    The Parmigiano-Reggiano I enjoy is produced only in the Reggio Emilia region by Academia Barilla. This particular company uses milk exclusively from small hillside dairies and ages wheels to 18 months. It is brittle and hard, with a pale yellow rind. Inside, the cheese is golden with a crystalline texture and sweet, fruity, tangy flavor, like fresh pineapple. It boasts a salty finish, having been brined for about 30 days before being transferred to an aging room.

    Meanwhile, the Wisconsin version is Sartori SarVecchio, one of the best Parmesans made in the United States. Aged at least 20 months, it is made from pasteurized milk in 30 pound wheels with a natural rind.

    Sartori Cheese’s headquarters are in Plymouth, but the cheese is made in Antigo. Started in 1939 by Paolo Sartori and Louis Rossini, when they founded S&R Cheese Corp in Plymouth, the company changed its name to Sartori Foods in 1996. Today, they employ three master cheesemakers who not only create Old World classics but new American Originals.

    Aged, crystalline, nutty, and grate-able, SarVecchio is a worthy rival to Old World Parmigiano-Reggiano, and routinely places first or second in national and international contests. You can find it in most any store where fine cheese is sold.

    And there you have it: three Old World favorites vs. New World upstarts. I’d argue with a contest like this, there really are no losers. Only we – the consumers – win.

    Next Up on the Bucket List: Cheeses of Northern Italy

    It started with a bucket list: visit France before I turned 40 and taste a raw milk Camembert. After checking that baby off my list last fall, when I took 20 members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals on a 10-day cheese tour to France, I’ve decided to check off another bucket list item: meet a shepherd and taste his cheese at the Bra Cheese Fair in Italy.

    That’s why I’m excited to announce I’ll be taking 20 people on The Grand Cheese & Wine Tour of Northern Italy, September 20 – 29, 2013. Whoo-hoo!

    What will we do? Well, we will eat cheese obviously. But we’ll also do much more. In summary, we’ll visit six cheese makers, three wineries, dine in a castle, stay in luxury hotels and spend an entire day walking the famous Bra Cheese Fair, one of the largest and most prestigious cheese festivals in the world. In short, we’ll spend 10-days eating and drinking our way through the Piemonte and Lombardia Regions in Northern Italy.

    A quick snapshot:

    Day 1: After flying into Milan, we’ll travel to Arona to visit Guffanti Cheese, named by the Wall Street Journal in 2010 as one of the Top Ten Cheese Shops in the world. We’ll spend the late afternoon shopping in this quaint village, enjoy a group welcome dinner at a local restaurant, and then stay overnight in an 18th Century-inspired Villa.

    Days 2-4: We’ll visit Ceretto Wine Estate, Barolo Castle, and Beppino Occelli, a butter and cheese producer and affineur. Most importantly, we’ll take a full day walking the Bra Cheese Fair, featuring the finest cheeses from Italy, Europe and the Americas. The Festival commands the entire historical center of Bra. On the “Street of the Shepherds”, we’ll meet small cheesemakers who tend to their flocks of sheep and goats and produce a limited quantity of extraordinary cheeses that rarely make it out of their home region. Tasting booths, seminars discussing the preservation of traditional methods, The House of Goat Cheeses, with more than 100 different goat cheese products from all over the world, are just some of the events open to tour attendees. Overnight in the Piemonte region.

    Days 5-7: These days are dedicated to exploring, visiting and tasting some of Italy’s finest cheeses. We’ll enjoy private tours and tastings with Gorgonzola, Tallegio, Buffalo Mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano cheesemakers, along with a visit and tour at a balsamic vinegar producer. Overnight in the Lombardia region.

    Days 8-10: It’s time to enjoy the final days in Milan, with a cooking class, private art tour with viewing of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous The Last Supper painting in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, time to explore and shop in the city, capped with a farewell dinner.

    And now for the game show deal. All this and more can be yours for the low low price of $3,895 per person. This price includes all hotel accommodations, most meals, and transportation via private motorcoach while in-country. However, airfare is additional. View a detailed brochure by clicking here.

    Once you’ve checked out the full brochure, I know you’ll want to join me. That’s why I’ve made it super easy to click here to reserve your spot by November 15, 2012 with a $1,450 deposit. I look forward to traveling with you to Italy next September!