Ciao on Choice Cheese
After a three-part installment singing the praises of the cheeses of France, it would be easy to surmise other countries couldn’t hold a candle to the greatness of France’s fromage. But don’t be hasty.
Just two of Northern Italy’s regions, Piedmont and Lombardy, produce a wide array of phenomenal cheeses, which stretch far beyond the traditional image of Italian cheese—Parmigiano, Mozzarella and Provolone.
As the name implies, Piedmont—meaning “foot of the mountains”—shares a northern border with Switzerland. The soaring Alps give way to fertile valleys and plains, well known for production of fine foodstuffs, including Barolo and Barbaresco wine, Arborio rice and truffles. True to form, the regional cheeses don’t disappoint.
In the northwest corner of the region lies the autonomous Val d’Aosta area, home to Fontina d’Aosta (fawn-TEE-nah DAWH-stah), the “original” Fontina that has been duplicated by countries around the world. Italian Fontina has a more pronounced flavor and significant complexity compared to its imitators.
Made with raw milk from a single milking, the cheese must be made twice daily to keep up with milk production. Because the animals are pasture-grazed spring through fall, there are often slight seasonal variations detectable in the soft, supple paste. The flavor is nutty, grassy and with a creamy sweetness and a great melting quality that makes it a standout in risotto and fonduta, an Italian take on fondue.
Robiola (roh-bee-OH-lah) is a generic term for a variety of small, surface-ripened cheeses made throughout Piedmont and Lombardy, though with markedly different results. They can be made with sheep, goat or cow milk and, because of their limited aging, must be made with pasteurized milk for the American market.
Piedmontese Robiola are delightful and delicious cheeses with a downy white rind. Cheeses are designated for a particular town or area or by the number of milk types represented (two milk, three milk, etc.). The most famous is Robiola di Roccaverano, a three-milk cheese that is protected under DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) rules. The wrinkly rind is delightful and adds texture and flavor to the smooth, rich interior paste. The cheese is practically irresistible, with notes of mushrooms and sweet cream and a palate-coating paste.
Robiola Valsassina from Lombardy is similar to Piedmontese Robiola in its small stature, but the rind is more akin to another Lombardian specialty, Taleggio, previously covered in the article on washed-rind cheese.
Made with pasteurized cows milk, Robiola Valsassina ages quickly and with the same full aroma and flavor found in other washed-rind cheeses. The reddish-brown rind should be moist and the paste yielding to the touch. The intense aroma will be tempered upon tasting the meaty, nutty paste, which is much less aggressive than the aroma would imply. A similar style of Lombardian cheese, yet much harder to find, is Brescianella (breh-shah-NELL-ah). If you come across this gem and enjoy the washed rinds, be sure to take home a wedge. It is unforgettable.
Perhaps the most well known of the cheeses made in both Piedmont and Lombardy is Gorgonzola (gor-gon-ZOH-la), Italy’s contribution to the world’s greatest blues. This DOP cheese is made by about 60 dairies, ranging from small co-ops to large, multinational companies.
One of the most unique aspects of this particular blue is the wide range of ages the cheese is available. For those who prefer soft, moist and subtly sweet blues, opt for the two-month-old Dolce (dol-CHAY), an almost perfect dessert cheese when served with fresh pears. With a bit of added aging, the paste becomes firmer and the flavor much bolder. Those who prefer the bigger bite should seek out Gorgonzola-designated Naturale or Piccante, both of which will deliver on flavor.
It would be remiss not to mention two other fairly well known Northern Italian cheeses that come from the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia regions in the Northeastern part of the country. While more “mainstream” than the cheeses covered above, they are satisfying and more widely available than some of the smaller production products preceding.
Asiago (ah-zee-AH-goh), a cow’s milk cheese available in three distinct stages of ripeness: fresco (aged two to three months), mezzano (aged three to five months) and vecchio (aged nine-plus months). The longer the aging, the firmer and more intense the flavor of the final product. Asiago in any stage makes a fantastic antipasto addition.
Montasio (mohn-TAH-zee-oh), a pasteurized cow’s milk cheese is similar in form and flavor to Asiago but with mountain milk, which is slightly higher in butterfat, leading to a richer, fuller flavored cheese. The specimens available in the U.S. are aged about nine months, making it an ideal table cheese with cured meats, vegetables and fruit.
The cheeses of Northern Italy have a growing presence in the Northwest market due to the increased imports of previously hard-to-source cheeses. While still “flying under the radar,” they are memorable and unique, well worth seeking out at a reputable cheese shop. Look especially for cheeses from Fresca Italia, a Bay Area importer of incredible products from Guffanti, a third-generation affineur renowned for exceptional cheese.
Choose a selection of three to five Northern Italian cheeses in a variety of styles, and host an Italian tasting. Suggested wine accompaniments include: sparkling, a slightly sweet, fruity white and a medium-bodied red, all of which will complement many cheeses. Be sure to have some charcuterie, crusty bread and fresh, seasonal fruit available as well.
Christine Hyatt is a cheese educator and food writer. She currently serves as the vice president of the American Cheese Society and welcomes cheesy questions at email@example.com .