Cheese, beautiful cheese! Italy is famous for its cheeses. Everyone is familiar with some of the workhorses of Italian cheeses including mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino, Fontina, Asiago, Grana Padano…and I could go on.
I want to take you on a journey of sorts and introduce you to some great Italian cheeses that you might not be as familiar with. There is a long and storied history of cheese making in Italy. During the Roman empire, people mastered the art of cheese making. In fact, separate kitchens were set up just for the making of cheese. The Roman Empire brought these varied forms of cheese making techniques to other cultures around the world as the expanded their world dominance.
While the most popular Italian cheeses are fantastic and popular for a reason, there are many less well known cheeses that are absolutely worth trying. Italy, in fact, is one of the regions where you will find the most varieties of cheese.
I absolutely love cheese. All you need is a good hunk of crusty bread, maybe a few grapes and you have a perfect snack, not to mention what you can do with it in recipes. Whenever my husband and I take a trip…whether its to the Dolomites or Sicily or even just a trip to a local food festival, I usually come back with one or two kinds of cheese. I have a shelf dedicated to them, not to mention my salumi collection, but that’s a whole other story ;).
So here is a list of ten cheeses that I want to share with you. We will start in the north and wind our way south down to Sicily and finish in Sardinia.
Bra Tenero DOP
From the area of Bra in Piedmont region in northern Italy, this is a semi-soft cheese that has DOP status or Protected Designation of Origin. The cheese is made from the milk of a local breed of cow known as Reggiano. Even though the cheese is named after the town of Bra, it is actually produced in the surrounding valley. However, back in the day, Bra was an important junction for commercial trade, travellers, and merchants usually brought this cheese in Bra so they simply got used to calling it with this name. Bra cheese is aged for a year to develop its salty, floral tang and pink-peppercorn like finish. It is a great table cheese with its mild, slightly spicy flavor with notes of fresh cream, grass, and raw nuts. Light to medium bodied white wines or young reds such as Dolcetto d’Asti DCO go extremely well with this cheese.
Produced in the Valtelline Valley in the northern region of Lombardy, the name of the cheese is named after the the Bitto River that runs through the valley. This cheese is only produced in the summer months when the Alpine breed of cows are feeding on lush grasses in the high alpine meadows. The cheese is made with this cow’s milk with the addition of 10 to 20 % goats milk which allows long aging of the cheese. The first historical production of this cheese dates to the 1600s. Young bitto cheese has a soft texture, thin rind and a delicate flavor. After a year of ageing, the texture is harder and crumbly and is stronger and slightly spicy. After two years, it has quite a stronger flavour and is much harder; ideal for grating. It is a good table cheese and great paired with a full bodied red wine. In cooking, young Bitto cheese is used in a few traditional recipes as it melts beautifully. A typical dish called “pizzoccheri.” is made with it. This dish is a homemade short tagliatelle, a flat ribbon pasta made with a combination of buckwheat and wheat flours. The classic preparation is made with savoy cabbage and cubed potatoes. The mixture is layered with pieces of cheese like the Bitto cheese as well as some grated Parmigiana Reggiano and dressed with garlic that has been lightly fried in butter. It doesn’t get any more delicious thank that!
Red Treviso Drunk (Ubriaco) Cheese
This is a cow’s milk cheese that is bathed for several days in merlot wine marc. Wine marc are the solid remains of the grapes after they have been pressed for wine. It contains the skins, pulp, seeds and seeds, and stems of the grapes. This practice of bathing the cheese in the wine marc originated in the Veneto region as a method for preserving of cheeses. Today, however, it is now used mainly as a means of giving cheese a particular flavour and is a practice that is currently widespread throughout many areas of Italy. The wine marc does not absorb into the cheese, but instead imparts a perfume that penetrates into the cheese giving it fruity traces of wine with an intense, piquant flavour. It is great served with aged, red wines and fig preserves.
Fossa di Sogliano DOP
While the undisputed king of all Emilia-Romagna cheeses is of course Parmigiano Romagna there are some other excellent and often overlooked cheeses from this region. One in particular is Fossa di Sogliano DOP. This is a very unique cheese in the way it is made as it is left to age in a pit (hence the name fossa). As the story goes, in the 15th century, farmers were tired of raids began hiding their food supplies below ground. They soon discovered that the cheeses they put underground came out with a whole new taste and aroma. Over time, the making of this cheese has become somewhat of an art form and is now highly coveted by professional chefs. The cheese, which can be made with cow’s milk, sheep’s milk or a combination of the two, is usually aged for about 30 days before being placed in the “fossa” or pit wrapped in cloth bags. The cheese ages like this for an additional 3 months.
The cheese is wonderful eaten on its own, used in quiches, grated on pasta or with honey and fruit and some good crusty bread.
This is a unique goat cheese that is made in the mountains near Frosinone, about an hour and half drive south of Rome in the region of Lazio. In the past, this cheese was only produced during the first lactation period of the goats in March from where the name originated (Marzo or March). This cheese is placed on wooden racks for several days to mature. It is then transferred to glass jars; either dry or with olive oil and left to age for an additional several months to prefect its distinctive flavour. If you eat it dry, it will have spicier notes and under oil it will become softer and take longer to mature. The dry cheese can be grated over pasta and the cheese under oil is good eaten with jams and chutneys.
Casieddu di Moliteno
Produced in the area of Moliterno in the Basilicata region of Italy, it is especially unique in that a handful of a very aromatic herb called nepeta is mixed in with the goat’s milk as it is heated. Once the cheese is formed into smallish round balls, it is wrapped in fern leaves and left to age for a minimum of 60 days. The cheese has a delicate taste of herbs and is especially nice paired with fruity white wines or lagers. It is good served with marmalades or ginger preserves, olives in brine, fresh fruit as well as walnut and raisin breads.
Caciocavallo di Ciminà
This is an unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese from Ciminà in the province of Calabria. Caciocavallo cheese is made throughout southern Italy and the technique to produce it is pretty much the same. The difference lies in the pastures, the climate, and of course the expertise of the cheesmakers. In Ciminà, the traditional Podolica cows, from which this cheese is made, roam free most of the year. The name caciocavallo literally means “cheese on horseback.” It probably comes from the traditional method of transport; the cheeses were suspended like saddlebags across the horses’ flanks for the journey down the mountain. Two versions of caciocavallo cheese are made in Ciminà, the classic oval shape and and unusual one with two knots. The double headed version, which is small and elongated, is unique among Italian cheeses. It is usually eaten fresh, just a few days after production and often grilled. If you let the cheese age a few more weeks, it develops a golden yellow color, is spicier with floral and hazelnut undertones. The aged caciocavallo is wonderful paired with a fruity red wine as it balances the flavor of the cheese. It is delicious served on an antipasti plate with brined olives, cured meats and some crusty bread.
This cheese is made exclusively in the provinces of Ragusa and Siracusa in Sicily. This is one of the oldest cheeses with evidence dating back to as early as 1500.A hard cheese, it’s made with whole milk from the Modicana breed of cows that feed on fresh grass. Because this breed of cow is now so rare, this cheese can now be made with other breeds of cow’s milk (if this is the case, the cheese is called “cosacavaddu rassanu.” This cheese is sold at different stages of aging in rectangular blocks. When eaten fresh (within 2 months of production), the cheese tastes sweet and delicate. Ripened beyond 6 months, it is more flavorful and a bit spicier. You can also find it smoked (affumicato).
Piacentinu Ennese DOP
This cheese appeared for the first time in the 16th century. According to local legend, Rugger oil Normanno, King of Sicily, watching his depressed wife, ordered a local dairyman to make a therapeutic cheese for her. After a few experiments, the dairyman decided to add a small amount of saffron to sheep’s milk, creating a cheese with a pretty and unusual yellow color and with important energizing and antidepressant properties. The process of making this cheese starts with sheep’s milk, heated and then saffron is added, then black pepper and it is cured for 60 days. The presence of black pepper and saffron gives the cheese an original spicy scent. It has a delicate taste with a delicate scented aftertaste. It is great as a table cheese and pairs beautifully with a Nero d’Avola (an intense red wine from Sicily that is enriched with both fruity and spicy notes).
Sardinia is known for the production of some fantastic sheep milk cheeses. According to evidence, the first versions of Fiore Sardo which is from the pecorino family of cheeses can be dated more than a thousand years before Christ during the Bronze Age. The original inhabitants used cardoon flowers to obtain a coagulating power, adding it to sheep’s milk to allow its coagulation. This is where the name of the cheese comes from, fiore meaning flower. It was awarded DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status in 1996 and as per these standards, the cheese is made with milk sourced from a single flock of a local Sardinian breed of sheep. This cheese is rich in flavour with caramel sweetness, salty tang, and a hint of fruit. The spicy flavor intensifies depending on the length of maturation (up to six months). Less aged Fiore Sardo pairs well with young red wines such as the Cannonau di Sardegna DOC while a more mature version of the cheese works well with more robust wines such as a Malvasia di Bosa.
So here’s an idea for a party. Why not throw an Italian cheese party or aperitivo pot luck. Send invites out to your friends with the name of cheese or bottle of wine to bring and experience some new and different cheeses along with some of the more well known and equally delicious cheeses. You can be responsible for things like bread, different kinds of olives, salumi, etc. It’s an easy and fun way for everyone to experience new cheeses!