Cheese – Formaggio – is an area of Italian cuisine to be explored and savoured. Some of the very best cheeses in the world come from Italy and as in everything else the cheeses found in different regions are all totally different. It can be served as part of the antipasto or as a separate course between ‘il secondo‘ and dolce or instead of dolce. I’ve been in restaurants where people have chosen a plate of cheese as their main course – and why not when there ia such a variety to savour.
You may be surprised to be served honey or jam with your cheese or even mostarda, a tangy, mustardy fruit relish that comes from Cremona – you may also be shocked that you’ll rarely be offered crackers! Cheese is to be enjoyed without bread or crackers that detract from the flavour.
Fontina is a truely mountain cheese. the origins of the cheese lay in the distant past. An unpasteurized, full fat, cows mik cheese that is matured for 3 months. Originating ion the high Alpine slopes the cheese tastes earthy of mushroons, slightly woody. It melts quickly giving a wonderfully stringy texture perfect for Fonduta (Italy’s version of Fondue). If you see dishes named ‘Valdostantana’ it means that a slice of Fontina will have been melted over the top – it might be polenta, gnocchi, a steak, soup, almost anything.
Like Lazio, the cheeses produced in Toscana are mainly produced from sheep’s milk. there are no big-names but it is always worth searching out local cheeses whenever you are visiting Toscana. Pienza is a small hill-top town well worth visiting as it was the first ‘ideal town’ built for Pope Pius Picolommini in 1455. There are several shops that sell the tastey pecorino cheeses produced in the area. back to top
Umbria doesn’t have one particular cheese for which it is famous, however this doesn’t mean you should dismiss the deliscious cheeses from this region. Most are made from sheep’s milk so may all just be called percorino and be matured for various amounts of time. You will find some with additions of truffle, pepperoncino, or aged in grottos.
These are some to look out for: Caciotta, Pecorino di Norcia, Raviggiolo Umbro and Ricotta salata. back to top
Pecorino Romano. The most popular version is the slightly salty grating cheese that is often called Romano or Pecorino stagionato (aged). Much of it is actually made in Sardegna, and that made in Lazio is becoming harder to find all the time as Roma spreads and occupies land once devoted to grazing. Classic Pecorino from Lazio has a greenish tinge, while the one from Sardegna is whiter. The green tinge comes when the cheese is aged in tufa caves, as tradition dictates. Both cheeses belong to the Consorzio del Pecorino Romano, the producers’ consortium. The first taste of aged Pecorino Romano is salty, but then other flavours come forth, including milk and herbs. The cheese has a very long finish (aftertaste). As with almost all cheeses, it will taste different depending on when the milk was gathered. A one-year-old Pecorino that was made in the spring will taste younger and fresher than one made in summer or fall, because the sheep eat more tender grass in the spring. A cheese made in June, when the grass is harder, will taste stronger after a year. A popular dessert (or anti pasta) is fave con il Pecorino, raw broad beans served with a slice of cheese. The other combination that works wonderfully well is Pecorino with pears. A great way to end a meal. Don’t be confused by the many different types of pecorino you will find in the shops and market stalls – try them all. You will also find Caciotta which may be sheep’s or cow’s milk or even a mixture of the two.
Ricotta Romana. This smooth, fresh creamy cheese is one of the simplest, and most addictive, in all of Italy. It is made of milk curds (cow or sheep) that are twice cooked and then cooled. A very healthy option. Ricotta has very little fat, it is protein and water. Eat it like you would yogurt or in pasta dishes or with jam or chocolate spread, or even just a dusting of coffee. I love to eat mine with Maple syrup (not at all Italian I know but wonderful all the same. A new totally different cheese has started to be produced in the last couple of years, called Fiocca della Tuscia, this is a fresh cow’s milk cheese that resembles French Brie. You can serve it cooked in the oven, so that the outside skin remains firm but the inside melts! back to top