Think Italy, think mouthwatering pastas and pizzas couched in the creamy deliciousness of cheese. What indeed would one of the world’s greatest cuisines be without its cheeses? Cheese is part of an Italian household’s daily life and today, with Italian cuisine growing in popularity in every corner of the globe, the world is more familiar with its many cheeses.
We take you through a few of the more popular ones.
Think pizzas and salads, think mozzarella. This is an elastic and stretchy cheese. Today in most parts of the world, mozzarella is made from cow’s milk and while it is still fresh, it is made into balls put into brine or even water or whey so it stays fresh and white and doesn’t dry out. It is also made into blocks to be shredded or you can buy pre-shredded and packed mozzarella.
However, this is not really the original mozzarella which is traditionally made out of buffalo milk and is called mozzarella di bufala. This is the mozzarella that is made in Italy and the reason perhaps that it hasn’t made it to the world stage is the fact that it has to be eaten fresh – as soon as possible after it has been made. You get them in balls that are round or slightly oval, oozing with moistness from the liquid it is stored in, and pure white. The true test of this fresh cheese is that it should be more floppy than rubbery – that is when it tastes best. It is a great addition to salads and because of its elastic nature on melting, great for pizzas as well. There is something special about this cheese made fresh from the milk of the water buffalo. While the mozzarellas outside of Italy may be very elastic on top of pizzas, they cannot quite match the unusual flavor of this wonderful Italian cheese.
High up in the Italian Alps in the Valle d’Aosta, the high mountains and the dry summer days combine to produce some of the best fodder. This is perhaps why this region has been a cheese-producing one from the 11th century onwards. Then, the cheese was simply known as ‘caseus’ or cow’s milk. Today Fontina stands for this wonderful cheese that is made in spring and summer in the alpine regions in this area.
The cheese has a slight straw, flesh-colored look, with just the faintest nut and honey flavor. Maybe even a hint of earthiness and mushrooms. The cheese is a bit elastic and it is usually used in recipes where the cheese needs to be melted.
It takes around three months for this cheese to ripen and there are cheese makers who use the most unusual places to do so – old tunnels and caves as well and maybe even a deserted old mine.
Mascarpone cheese, usually made from cow’s milk, is technically not considered a cheese at all. It is produced by adding culture to cream skimmed off milk. This cheese is used in the production of Parmesan cheese. However, since it is made in a similar way to yogurt, it is often referred to as curd cheese. Mascarpone is a fast ripening cheese which has a fat content of 75 per cent. It is milky white in color and can be spread easily.
Production of this cheese takes place by adding culture to milk which is then gently heated. After that it is allowed to thicken and mature. The thick, texture which is then developed is usually very versatile. This triple-cream cheese is denatured with tartaric acid. Tiramisu is the most famous dish which is made out of this cheese. Besides Tiramisu, Mascarpone cheese is also used for baking and in dishes with pasta. Sometimes it is used to enrich and thicken risotto instead of butter or Parmesan cheese. Apparently, Mascarpone cheese originated during the 16th or 17th century between Lodi and Abbiategrasso, Italy, southwest of Milan. It is considered a specialty of the Lombardy region of Italy.
Gorgonzola, an Italian ‘blue’ cheese, is one of the 26 cheeses that falls under the category of DOC cheeses in Italy. According to some legends, this cheese was discovered around 879 by an Italian innkeeper living in Gorgonzola who realized that his Stracchino cheese which was kept in his damp cellar had turned blue after a few weeks.
Gorgonzola cheese is famous for its sharp, spicy flavor which proves to be quite a contrast to regular rich creamy cheese. It is often used as a pizza topping and is widely used in Italian dishes alongside polenta. It is also melted into a risotto in the final stages of cooking.
Gorgonzola cheese is usually made from pasteurized cow’s milk. Mould is added to the cheese and after about four weeks it is pierced with thick needles. The thick needles create air gaps in the cheese, allowing the mould to spread by germinating. This ageing process takes place in low temperatures. This cheese, which has a fat content of 48 per cent, usually takes about three to six months to ripen properly. The consistency of the cheese can be determined by the length of the ageing process. It is then usually wrapped in foil so that the cheese stays moist.
Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus are bacteria which are used for the production of this cheese. Along with these bacteria, Penicillium glaucum is a mould whose spores are used for the production of Gorgonzola cheese.
Traditional methods of making Gorgonzola cheese include using unpasteurized milk and allowing the curd to hang overnight so that it is exposed to mould, but these methods are not very commonly used today. There are about 80 producers in north Italy and the province of Novara is famous for the production of Gorgonzola cheese.
Ricotta, an Italian whey cheese, is produced from whey, a liquid obtained by separation from curd when cheese is made. Ricotta cheese was first invented when it was found that whey was a hazardous substance which was creating environmental pollution. At this time, Romano makers discovered that by heating this protein-rich substance, the casein particles fused. This formed curd, which could then be made into ricotta cheese by draining it in woven baskets.
This cheese is a fresh cheese, which makes it very perishable in nature. It is firm, but not solid and moist. It contains delicate, fine grains and is not salty to taste. Ricotta cheese has a fat content of about 5 per cent and has a texture similar to that of cottage cheese. However, it is lighter than cottage cheese. It usually takes about one to five days to ripen.
Ricotta cheese has the characteristic of melting in the mouth. Unfortunately nowadays, semi skimmed milk is often used instead of whey in the production of this cheese, which often makes it lumpy and grainy. This can be a problem when the cheese is used in Italian recipes.
Ricotta cheese has a number of uses and is widely used in a variety of Italian dishes. Cheesecakes, cannoli and cassatas are just few of the numerous dishes made with the help of this cheese. In Italy, it is often beaten into sheets and served with condiments as a dessert.
Ricotta often appears in a number of guises in Italy. Besides the regular traditional dishes, it is also salted, dried and stored. This is called ricotta salata. Another form, ricotta infornata, is produced by baking a soft lump of ricotta cheese until it turns brown in color. Ricotta Romano cheese is made from sheep’s milk and is considered a specialty. This specialty is available in Italy only from November to June.
This cheese made of cow’s milk is one of the most popular of Italian cheeses. It can be eaten as a snack or put over pasta – either way, this cheese which is aged sometimes for three years, tastes so good. Even the rind which bears the name of the cheese can be used to flavor a soup.