Scusi! Move on, France, because Italy is after your cheese lovers!
Italian cheese used to be a foreign word—Or only defined by its most popular competitors in the international market: parmesan and mozzarella. Fine cheeses and cheeses made by local producers were closely guarded secrets or the domain of established restaurants, says New York based chef Carlo Bigi. Shockingly, Italians – not known for lacking self-confidence – stayed short when it came to cheese.
“Italians have great, unique products, but they have always underestimated them compared to other countries,” said Chef Bigi, citing other European success stories – French cheese and wine, Swiss chocolate, and even Portugal Pata Negra (an acorn-fed Iberian ham that is a particular delicacy in the Alentejo).
But with the advent of the Slow food Movement and epicurean realms like Eataly who put artisanal Italian food in the foreground, awareness outside of Italy has grown, combined with new marketing know-how. “Italy has done a better job in recent years to improve its exports,” said Bigi.
Still, it’s not easy to import all of Italy’s cheesy delicacies. They have to meet strict regulations and the cost of importing is prohibitive, which almost guarantees some of the most interesting, hyper-local artisanal cheeses never make it to the U.S. market, cheese expert says Laura Werlin, the James Beard Award winning author of six books on the subject.
And that’s a shame, she says, because Italy is full of cheeses that “really appeal to the places where they’re made: substantial and satisfying and very convincing because they have a lot of texture and versatility”.
Enter the AOP Agriform project, an association of producer organizations that works with dairy cooperatives in northeastern Italy and promotes regional cheeses made from the milk of their member farmers. In search of a platform in the New York market to showcase its signature cheeses, it asked Northern Italian-born Bigi to develop pairings for six of its popular PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) cheeses. It was a project the chef could get over with.
“The nice thing about Italian cheeses is that there is a bit of our culture and every culture in them…. There’s a recipe for everyone, ”said Bigi, who, after having worked at the Italian trattoria, Il Buco Alimentari and the Sant Ambroeus restaurant at the Gemma Bowery Hotel, is now head chef at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Westchester County.
Werlin agrees. “When it comes to Italian cheese, there is something for everyone,” she said, adding, “People are expanding their overall food knowledge and cheese goes with that.” The proliferation of specialty cheese shops and departments in supermarkets, as well as education, make it a lot easier Exploring cheese off the beaten path, she says.
Here are six to try with Chef Bigi’s combinations showing the diversity of these cheeses to work with an international palate.
“We can call all of these types of cheese table cheese,” says Chef Bigi. “The older ones create a more memorable experience, Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano are great for pasta and risottos, while the younger Montasio and Asiago are good for a light starter or sandwich.”
Asiago Fresco PDO This fresh, young table cheese melts easily, is versatile and is suitable as a light starter or on sandwiches (ideal with scrambled eggs). When young (30-50 days), it has a buttery, tangy, milk-flavored flavor profile that becomes more floral as it ages. Chef Bigi says he likes to cook with this cheese. Chef’s Combination: Spicy Green Grape and Shiso Leaves.
Asiago Stagionato PDO. A smooth, compact alpine cheese made from cow’s milk has four stages of maturity, with the stravecchio the oldest (15 months) and with intense, rich, sweet nut flavors. Go with chutneys, honey, jam. Chef’s combination: chestnut honey and roasted hazelnuts.
Grana Padano PDO Parmesan often takes a backseat, but it shouldn’t. Made from partially skimmed cow’s milk, this fine-grain cheese has a hard, fine-grain texture, matures for up to 16 months and, like wine, has a “riserva” version with longer maturation. Well shaved with pasta or risotto, figs and honey or grated over a Brussels sprout salad. Widely used from Veneto to Emilia Romagna. Chef’s Combination: Pumpkin Starda (Mustard) and Roasted Seeds.
Montasio PDO It has been made by monks from the north-east of South Tyrol since 1200 with up to 18 months of maturation. More butter cheese with a grainy texture, balanced by the acidity of the cranberry compote he makes. Very adaptable as a starter, in a fondue or a frittata, it can be breaded and deep-fried. Chef’s combination: port wine and cranberry compote and crispy kale.
Parmigiano Reggiano PDO “Parm is in every Italian fridge like cheddar is in every American fridge,” says the chef and says, with its grainy texture – most of the six – and the concentrated nuttiness, a little parmesan is enough. Sprinkled with pasta and olive oil, he says, you don’t need much for a meal. Add in Lambrusco, the slightly bubbly red wine from the nearby Emilia-Romagna region, or a white wine like Soave that works with the saltiness of the cheese. Chef’s Combination: Aged Modena Balsamic Vinegar and Asian Pear.
Piave PDO From the Belluno area in the foothills of the Dolomites, Piave has five differently aged versions. Boy (fresco) is delicate with neutral milk flavors, and as the rinds become thicker and firmer with age, the flavor intensifies. Piave Vecchio Riserva, the oldest with more than 18 months, is a super small production and is characterized by a deep yellow color and a strong nutty, sweet character. Chef’s combination: red onion and ginger chutney and marcona almonds.