Italy is famous around the world for its incredible range of delicious cheeses. These cheeses are produced using both traditional and modern techniques and reflect the amazing diversity of the country’s regional culinary histories.
There are more than 600 different types of cheese in Italy with the very best having an official POD status. POD, or ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ in English, means that the cheese is produced in a certain area and using authorized traditional techniques.
Some of these remarkable cheeses have been produced for hundreds, if not thousands of years! For example, the production of Italian Pecorino Romano cheese, which is made from sheep’s milk, dates back more than 2000 years to the times of the Roman Empire.
Italians are extremely proud of their local cuisine and this helped to keep some of the nation’s ancient traditions alive and thriving. Cheese is a vital ingredient in Italian cuisine and so learning about the most important cheeses can help you to improve your cooking as well as give you a better appreciation of this remarkable culinary culture.
Cheese In Italy – A Glance At The History.
Although the history of cheese production in Italy dates back several thousand years to the days of the Roman Empire, the consumption of cheese didn’t become widespread until much later.
It wasn’t until the Middle ages, during the 13th Century, that Italians began to regularly eat cheese after meals on a widespread basis. This was originally done on the advice of doctors who suggested that it could help with digestion.
In fact, more than 20 popular Italian cheeses are known to date back to the Middle Ages. The majority of these cheeses were originally produced by monks, including Gorgonzola and Montasio, although today their production is largely overseen by business enterprises.
Saint Lucio – The Patron Saint Of Italian Cheese Makers.
The patron saint of cheesemakers in Italy is named Saint Lucio. He lived during the 13th Century and would use the milk from his landlord’s estate to make cheese to give to the starving peasants. This angered his landlord who threw him off his land!
Fortunately, Lucio found a new, kinder master to work for and he continued to feed the poor with his home-made cheeses.
Lucio’s charitable deeds brought good fortune to his new master and the sheep in their herds multiplied quickly; bringing wealth to the estate. Lucio’s former landlord was furious when he heard of his success and in an act of jealousy he stabbed Lucio to death and threw his body into a lake between Colla Valley and Cavaragna Valley.
Each year in Italy, the feast day of Saint Lucio, patron saint of cheesemakers, is celebrated on the 12th of July. At this time of year a kind of microscopic algae turns the Alpine lakes red and this is seen as a sign of the sacrifice made by Saint Lucio to feed the poor with his cheese.
Important Types Of Italian Cheeses.
Each major Italian cheese has its own unique heritage and comes in a different shape, texture and size. Some cheeses are hard, such as Parmesan, whereas others are soft and creamy. However, once you start to try the wide range of Italian cheeses you’ll soon find that they all compliment different foods, wines and occasions.
- Mozzarella: As one of Italy’s best known cheeses, Mozzarella is made from buffalo’s milk and is produced using an unusual technique known as ‘pasta filato’. This technique is known as ‘pulled curd’ in English and is used for several different types of cheeses, although Mozzarella is the most famous of them. Mozzarella is a soft white cheese that has a damp texture and is frequently used to top pizzas, cooked in lasagnas or added to Caprese salads along with basil and tomato.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano: Usually referred to simply as ‘Parmesan’, this is a hard cheese which is traditionally produced in the city of Parma as well as Reggio Emilia and Modena. Technically, ‘Parmesan’ cheese is only made in a certain designated areas of Northern Italy while the Parmigiano-Reggiano is made in Southern provinces. Parmesan cheese is used to grate on to the top of pasta dishes and salads and has a superbly smooth flavor.
- Taleggio: Taleggio gets its name from the Lombardy valley of Val Taleggio. Taleggio is a hard yellow cheese that has a very strong smell but a mild flavor with a fruity undertone. Taleggio is eaten in rucola salad with pine nuts and baked tomatoes or added to risotto dishes. Alternatively, it’s added to radicchio or used with tomatoes and spices on bruschetta.
- Mascarpone: Mascarpone is an extremely strong tasting cream cheese that is made by extracting the moisture from cow’s milk through a specially designed fine woven cloth. The white cheese is one of the major ingredients in tiramisu but it’s also used to make cheesecakes or as an alternative to butter to thicken risotto dishes and give it a lovely deepened flavor.
- Pecorino: ‘Pecorino’ is a whole family of cheeses which are produced using the milk of sheep. The most famous type of Pecorino cheese is the Pecorino Romano which is a very salty and hard cheese. The production of Pecorino Romano cheese originated during the early period of the Roman Empire which makes it one of Italy’s most historic cheeses. Pecorino cheeses are grated over pasta dishes, soups and salads as a Parmesan alternative. Pecorino cheeses have a stronger flavor than Parmesan does which makes it popular among Italian chefs.
- Montasio: Montasio was originally made by Benedictine monks in the valleys of Carnic and the Julian Alps as a way to preserve milk to store proteins for the long cold winters. The first known production of Montasio dates back to the 13th Century and was made with cow’s milk in the Alpine pastures. The cheese has a very rich taste and is sold in cylindrical blocks. Montasio is frequently grated on pasta, added to asparagus or used to thicken soups and sauces.
- Ricotta: Ricotta, which translates as ‘recooked’, is made by mixing the leftover whey from the production of other types of cheeses. Ricotta is a creamy white cheese that has a uniquely sweet taste however its precise texture will always depend on what type of milk was used to make it. Some varieties age better than others but most of them perish extremely quickly. Ricotta is a table cheese that is usually eaten on toasted bread or crackers.
- Stracchino: Sometimes referred to as ‘Crescenza’, Stracchino is a rich white cream cheese that is very similar to Gorgonzola except softer and easier to spread on bread. Stracchino is produced in Northern Italian provinces and is either eaten with bread or else on its own with antipasto side dishes.
- Provolone: Provolone is from Campania and is famous for originally being transported by monks under their cloaks from the mountain based diaries to Naples where it was sold at market. The monks would keep the cheese under their cloaks in order to protect it from the bitter sea winds that would sweep across the plains and ruin the cheese’s taste! Provolone is made from cow’s milk and is a creamy yellow colored cheese that is sold in semi oval shapes. The cheese starts out with a sweet buttery taste but as it matures it obtains a stronger, spicy flavor.
- Asiago: Asiago is made using cow’s milk and is either soft and smooth or harder and crumbly, depending on how long it has been aged for. Asiago is a unique cheese that is only produced in the Asiago Plateau in Veneto, Northern Italy. The harder, crumblier Asiago is used to grate on pasta dishes, soups and salads while the softer, creamier Asiago is used to thicken sauces in cooking or added to paninis with tomatoes and salad.
- Bel Paese: Bel Paese is a soft cow’s milk cheese that has a smooth buttery taste that is quite similar to Mozzarella except it has much sharper tangy undertones. Bel Paese is a pale yellow color and is usually served as a dessert cheese or eaten as a light snack. In some cases it can also be used to thicken casseroles or as a pizza topping.
- Castelmagno: Castelmagno is a semi hard cheese from Piedmont and is high in fat with modest blue veins. Castelmagno is produced using unpasteurized cow’s milk although it’s sometimes made with either sheep’s or goat’s milk. Castelmagno is made in cylindrical shapes with flat sides and has a thin rind that thickens as the cheese ages. Eventually, the rind becomes wrinkled and spicy as it ages. The cheese is usually eaten on its own or on toast as an appetizer. Alternatively, it is added to vegetables or used to season risottos, savory pies or gnocchi.
- Gorgonzola: Made from unskimmed cow’s milk, Gorgonzola is a hard blue cheese that comes in two main varieties. The Dolce variety is a sweet blue cheese while the Piccante, which is also known as ‘Montagna’, has a much sharper bitter flavor. Gorgonzola can be eaten with crackers or is melted into risotto before it is served. It’s also used in short pasta dishes, such as rigatoni and penne.
- Puzzone Di Moena: Puzzone di Moena is produced in Trentino and has a famously intense taste and a strong smell. Puzzone is made from cow’s milk and fermented herbs and comes in three different varieties. It can either be malga, aged or traditional. The malga Puzzone is the most expensive because it is aged for longer and has a rich herby taste. Puzzone is added to cooking in dishes such as gnocchi, polenta or melted on toast as a snack. It’s best enjoyed with a glass of red wine.
- Fontina: Heralding from the Aosta Valley, Fontina is a cow’s milk that is specially treated with salt and water during the process of its production. Once it is made it requires an 80 day period to cure before it’s ready for consumption. Fontina has an ancient heritage that dates back to the 13th Century and is likely to have been named after the small village of Fontinaz. Fontina is usually melted in a pan and added to gnocchi or steak. It can also be used to thicken soups or combined with salads to give an extra depth of flavor. Dishes that are made with Fontina pair excellently with a full to medium bodied red wine.
Italian Cheeses Are The Best In The World.
It’s fun to explore the fascinating selection of Italian cheeses that are available in the modern world. Whether you are making a pasta dish, thickening soups, adding toppings to a pizza or creating a healthy salad, to get the authentic taste of Italy you need to use genuine Italian cheese!
So start your journey today and begin stocking up on some of the finest cheeses on the planet to spice up your cooking and impress your dinner guests.