Southbound on the Boot
Italy has been a cheesemaking powerhouse since the days of Caesar, when Legionnaire rations included an ancient Grana-style cheese. It’s not surprising after centuries of cheesemaking prowess under their belts, the Italians make some pretty outstanding cheese. Our last installment looked at Northern Italian masterpieces; now, we turn our attention to a few treasures from a bit farther south.
To be fair, most of Italy’s greatest cheeses—the kind we’d feature on a cheese plate—hail from the cooler Northern district bordering France and Switzerland. But don’t be hasty, there are several not-to-be-missed cheeses rooted in regions farther south, without which the culinary world especially would be quite a bit less enjoyable.
Pecorino is a general term for Italian cheeses made with ewe’s milk. “Pecora,” the Italian word for sheep, provides a clue to the simple, rustic nature of the cheeses that are produced throughout much of Italy, wherever sheep graze. The most famous designations are produced in Tuscany, Sardinia, Sicily and the Lazio area south of Rome.
Pecorino Toscano is a DOP (the Italian equivalent of “Protected Designation of Origin”) cheese with a large legal production zone that includes and extends slightly beyond Tuscany proper. Throughout the region, each village has its own special cheese made from the local flock. Devotion to the local cheese is fierce, with each small town insisting its cheese is the best in all of Italy. Visitors can literally taste their way through the region feasting on dozens of different Pecorinos.
Designated production methods encompass a wide variety of aging techniques—from very young (fresco) to quite old, or seasoned. Aged cheeses are known as Pecorino stagionato and are commonly aged four to six months, but can be up to a year old. The extra aging produces a full-flavored cheese with a slightly oily texture because of the high butterfat content of ewe’s milk.
A definite sweetness pervades the paste, which ranges from ivory to amber in color, depending on age. There is an outstanding point-counterpoint between the natural sweetness and the understated saltiness. Some producers enhance the cheese by adding whole peppercorns or rubbing the exterior with tomato paste. Aged specimens especially make outstanding table cheeses as well as wonderful grating cheeses over pasta, soups and salads.
Perhaps the most famous cheese hailing from Southern Italy is Mozzarella. Not the block-style pizza cheese we’re familiar with or even the now-common globes of fresh cow’s milk Mozzarella soaking in brine, but Mozzarella di Bufala, a more elusive gem made with the milk of the domestic water buffalo. These large animals, similar to our own native buffalo, have thrived in the wet, marshy area around Naples since at least the 12th century.
Making buffalo Mozzarella follows a similar pattern to making its cow’s-milk cousin. Curd is pulled or stretched to give the cheese its unique texture, and the ubiquitous brine in which the cheese soaks ensures the characteristic moistness and fresh, subtle flavor. Because buffalo milk is higher in protein and butterfat, it yields a richer, more flavorful profile.
While cow’s milk Mozzarella is a more than acceptable substitute for everyday, do seek out the rare and delicious buffalo version for a special treat. Either way, be sure to check the sell-by date, and serve the cheese immediately. In the case of Mozzarella, fresher is always better.
Another little-known cheese that deserves wider acclaim is Ricotta Salata from the island of Sicily. This Ricotta is nothing like the scoopable lasagna cheese from the dairy section. Instead, the cheeses are dense, smooth-pressed cheeses made from sheep’s milk and aged for at least 90 days.
The salty, milky cheese is incredibly versatile with vegetables, pasta and soup. Dice or grate the cheese over savory dishes to add a bit of salty goodness. If you are lucky enough to find the rare roasted Ricotta Salata, a lightly smoked version that looks almost like a cake, be sure to jump on it. Its supple, sliceable texture is a knockout on a panino with grilled veggies.
Though Pecorino Toscano is an excellent table cheese, most of the cheeses of Southern Italy are perhaps best enjoyed as part of a fresh and flavorful meal. As the cooler days of fall settle in, seek out a flavorful Pecorino Toscano stagionato as the crowning adornment to a bowl of hearty, tomato-based stew, or whip up a rustic flatbread pizza with fresh Mozzarella, Ricotta Salata and end-of-season roasted vegetables.
Not surprisingly, wine pairings with these cheeses lean toward the Italian varietals. Sangiovese is a particular star, though red blends ought to pair well across the board.
Whichever way you slice it, Southern Italian cheeses add amazing flavor and texture, making everyday food that much more enjoyable.
Christine Hyatt is a Cheese Educator and food writer. She welcomes cheesy questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.