06 September 2008

Shopping: the cheeses

I have found Italian dairy products to be far superior to most American counterparts in variety, quality, and freshness. To begin with, Italian milk, cream, butter, and yogurt taste… milkier. They have a lush silkiness and an appetite-provoking aroma that I have never found in dairy products at home. It really makes me wonder what American producers are doing to our milk in pursuit of bigger profits and longer shelf-life.

But a much greater joy here has been the expansion of my cheese education. (Can I get a degree in this field? Perhaps a “doctorate dei formaggi?”) Every region of Italy produces extraordinary cheeses that beg to be sampled. Indeed, the best vendors beg you to taste them. I have done my very best to keep up with the offerings.

Where to begin? At first I just went crazy gobbling up the parmigiano reggiano… until I realized that “PR” gets even tastier as it ages, but the price gets bigger too. The trick here is to find someone who will sell you a small chunk of the old stuff. (Casa del Parmigiano comes to mind.) And don’t waste it on spaghetti! Italy has a number of similar hard cheeses, perfect for planing and grating. Grana padano and pecorino romano come to mind immediately, as do the aged versions of bavarese, asiago, montasio, and piave, all of which are more reasonably priced.

I’ve had good fun with Italy’s creamy and fresh cheeses. Let’s see... We have oozing stracchino in a box and small, square blocks of tangy robiola and occasionally – dear Heaven! – super-fresh mascarpone scooped out of a little barrel (which has ruined Philly for me forever), to eat in late autumn with fresh mostarda di cotogna (sharp mustard-spiked quince preserve) on still-warm ciabatta, or with slow-roasted figs and honey for breakfast. There’s good Greek-style feta here, bright and tart, and also plain but nice and almost-free farmer’s cheeses like quartirolo and schiz (pronounced something like “skis”). I have used these in omelets, frittate, and gratins with garlic-melted greens or tomatoes and fresh herbs – light and good!

Technically ricotta is not cheese, but why split hairs? Forget those little plastic Polly-O buckets. Here you can choose the quivering, ultra-fresh version or the firm, mature, salted one, or something in between, depending on what you want to cook. Or get it sweetened and baked like a cheesecake, with chocolate or lemon flavoring if you like. Then there is the slightly brown affumicata (smoked) variety, which is another thing altogether, and certainly an acquired taste. I report that I acquired it early on.

Of course, the Italians – even the little kids – eat silky, grey-veined gorgonzola the same way Americans eat Monterey Jack or cheddar. (Oddly, there are no “cheddared” cheeses in the Italian repertoire.) Gorg is nothing special here. I’m sure everyone’s got a little slab in the fridge. There’s also a cheap-and-cheerful, very firm, speckled blue called bergader that makes a pretty snack with sliced pears and toasted walnuts, not to mention a tasty salad dressing for crisp lettuce or ripe tomato slices.

Every cow’s milk cheese imaginable is made here. The mozzarella and mozzarella bufala are legendary. I’ve already told you about the amazing burrata and burratina. Lush and utterly addictive!

For toasted sandwiches, Italy offers many Swiss-like choices. The wee-holed crucolo is extra good and melts perfectly, no grease. Or choose a yummy scamorza, regular or smoked. And the aged provolone, melted or not, is a far cry from that dull, rubbery stuff used in American sub sandwiches.

I was well acquainted with taleggio when I got here – that stinky feet smell with a seductive slipperiness and buttery-mild taste. What I did not know about was morlacca, a little bit of which easily melts into the perfect silky glaze for ravioli or penne, giving a whole new meaning to the term “mac & cheese.”

Then I learned about the piemontasino, and the larger tuma del fen. These soft little paper- or leaf-wrapped Frisbees with a white, bloomy rind (very like the French St. Marcellin) are the ultimate glam snack food. A palm-sized one gently warmed in the oven and split open over lightly dressed valeriana (a deep green, loose leaf radicchio) is a fast and classy lunch, especially if there’s a crusty-tender roll flecked with bits of olive or speck (Tyrolean-style ham) to go alongside.

For something different but still familiar, I watch for names with the word asino. These are donkey’s milk cheeses – simple, mild, rather sweet, and inexpensive. (Me, I didn’t even know donkeys could be milked!)

Just studying all the pecorini and caprini – little cheeses made from sheep’s and goat’s milk respectively – could take a lifetime. Especially when all the possible flavorings are considered – the rind baths (such as beer or wines, which make a cheese umbriaco or “drunk” and sometimes purple!) and packings (such as cracked peppercorns, grasses or hay, ground nutshells, chilies, spices, dried truffles, or ashes, known as sottocenere). Then there are various treatments, like basketing, in which the cheese’s flavor comes from the reed of the basket that shapes it, and that of di fossa (“of the ditch”) which is buried underground while it ages. It’s probably easiest to start with some of the cute little tomini, Italy’s answer to the French tomme. They just melt away in the mouth. I have to be careful not to eat too many of the chile oil-soaked ones.

And don’t forget, one must consider the distinctions of aging – fresco, nuovo, mezzano, vecchio, stagionata… And also the D.O.P. restrictions for certain special, protected formaggi

Alas, I see that I have not even begun to cover my subject yet! Clearly I need more time to work on this if I want to earn that “Fr.D.”