27 April 2009

Say “Formaggio!”: FDM Takes Italy

Ahh, Italia. Cultural mecca, bastion of romance and passion. One pictures bustling city squares and impossibly idyllic countrysides. Allow me just a few more cliches here, because, hey, it’s Italy. And how can we talk about Italy without also mentioning the sound of opera, the smell of garlic, and the taste of tomatoes, oregano, and basil on a warm bowl of pasta al dente? Let’s face it: the place has got a lot going for it. It’s no surprise, then, that Italy is home to some of the world’s finest fromage. Aside from the obvious candidates like mozzarella and parmigiano, Italy has hundreds of other delicious cheeses on the menu.
There are a couple of things that every fromageophile should know about Italian cheese. One is that several of these cheeses are protected under the DOC label, which is crucial in preventing the dreaded cheese identity theft. Modeled off of the AOC of their French neighbors, the DOC label lets you know that you’re eating the real deal and not some overprocessed, mass-produced fromage impostor. Italy’s cheeses (again like their French counterparts) are also very specific to region and culture. And Italian people cherish their cheeses with amounts of gusto that would rival any Frenchman’s. But while the French subscribe to an all-encompassing, Vive la France! type of CheesePride, the Italians are much more, shall we say, regionalistic about things. In fact, each region values its cheeses to such a degree that it would be nearly impossible to visit one region and order up a cheese from a neighboring region.
With all this in mind, we held a modest Southern Californian FDM Summit with the goal of sampling Italian cheeses from a variety of regions. As is customary in fromage tasting, we went for the milder cheeses first.

Pantaleo [pahn-tuh-LAY-oh] is a rare goat cheese from the island of Sardinia. Off-white in color, its taste has been described as “fruity yet herbaceous”. It is uncharacteristically hard for a goat’s milk cheese and is aged for a minimum of 100 days. We tried it with honey, which was recommended, and a San Diegan IPA, which was not.
Piave Vecchio [pee-AH-vay VEK-ee-oh] is a cow’s milk cheese that hails from the Piave River Valley of Belluno, in the northern region known as Venetto. It’s aged for six to fourteen months and is yellowish in color. “Vecchio” means “old”, and one can even purchase a Piave Stravecchio (“extra-old"). The flavor intensifies with age, although it should be noted that an “extra-old” Piave resembles a young parmigiano reggiano. Fascinating! Our local cheese shop suggested pairing this fromage with an amber ale; our IPA was an intriguing substitute. We also tried grapes and olives with this fromage.
For our fromage finale, we sampled the Taleggio [tah-LEDGE-oh], an exciting cow’s milk from Lombardy. Taleggio is a member of the “washed rind” class of cheeses, which essentially qualifies it as a “stinky cheese”. As a DOC-protected fromage, its rind is embossed with a special mark so you know it’s authentically stinky. Our trusty cheese shop had nearly run out of this one, but they were kind enough to provide us with a couple of leftover scraps for a buck a pop. Not bad. In the interest of comparison, we also purchased a larger block of Tah-Ledge from a nearby healthfood conglomerate. Both taleggios were sampled with the remainder of our IPAs, a delectable pinot grigio, and the aforementioned culinary accoutrements. And also some bread.
Our Italian cheesetour was remarkable in several ways that should be noted here. For one, it marked the first FDM tasting in many a moon, which is decidedly a good thing. Second, it took us into uncharted lands and allowed us to learn about some very interesting (and very tasty) cheeses. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, two new members were initiated into the fold. A huge FDM welcome to Cookie Munster and Kurd Vonnegut! As for the other members, please enjoy our tasters’ reactions and comments as they are posted. And then? Why not go out and get yourself some Italian cheese and join the fun?


  1. I must commend out esteemed hosts for a fabulous event. All Frommagios should be so lucky.

    Now, I write now to commend the mature Tallegio form the cheese shop. Rarely have I had a stinky cheese offer so complex a flavor, even the paper was delicious. and when the the cheese book called it beefy, I mocked, but indeed, the mature Tallegio could stand up to a red wine, and it dominated the gentle pinot we had brought with us.

    As for our other entrants, I also very much enjoyed the Piave Vecchio. though it was a hard cheese, it had overtones of fruitiness that I very much enjoyed.

    Interesting side discovery for me: bread makes an excellent palette cleanser, but was, if anything, a flavor deadener for the cheese. Anyone else think that cheese on bread should be left to the philistines?

  2. Indeed, pairings cheese with any sort of bread, especially fluffy bread, often takes the essence away from the cheese flavor(s). I often have a bland cracker or two with my fromages - this is so that there is some sort of 'palate stabilizer' in the mix without there being a more complete, carbo-thick flavor-reducer like bread.

    Kudos to Chedda and constituents for a West coast FDM event of excellence. I now have an additional cheese to try. While I have had the Piave and Taleggio (The ''Ledge' is one of my very favorites, actually, because of its not-so-stinky stinkiness and mouth smoothness), I have never tried the fruity and herbaceous Pantaleo. Thank you.

    As readers will know, Tallegio is one of those cheeses that is found regularly at Whole Foods Market and other large-scale groceries and, from my experience, the quality of their imports is usually pretty good.

    As for cheese identity theft, it is really no small thing. The internationally unregulated category of 'Swiss' cheese, for example, has lead to a democratization of and (I fear) decrease in the quality of what was proably originally intended to be Emmenthaler cheese.

    Until next time...

  3. c. munster, you pose a very intriguing question, indeed. while bread+cheese is an obvious choice for a picnic in the park (and it's hard to deny the gustatory bliss contained in the baguette+butter+gruyere sandwich), i definitely agree that there's a certain flavor deadening that occurs when a fromage is sampled with bread. i like ricky's idea of utilizing a cracker, though i'm interested in whether a non-bland cracker would have the same effects as the bread. i plan on researching this today.

    as for the tasting: i believe i was the odd fromagier out in that i preferred the younger, less stinkified taledge. my cheese-tasting compatriots all seemed to prefer the stinkier, oozier, dare-i-say bougie-er taleggio. but i appreciated the supple, soft-yet-firm texture and the pleasant, simple, creamy taste of its competitor. the other tasters all said "boring", but i prefer "subtly refined". different strokes, perhaps.

    i also enjoyed the first two italian cheeses quite a lot. another interesting thing that we all noticed was that after we ate the stinkier taleggio, the flavors of the first two (much milder) cheeses really opened up. a truly fascinating phenomenon that i'm not quite sure i understand. ahhh, the wonder and mystery that is fromage.

  4. I think this tasting really brought Fromage du Mois back in style – Taleggio style. This cheese is the Cadillac of cheeses. Steve Jenkins writes: “Offering a wealth of slightly salty, nutty, meaty flavor, it beckons you to cut off just one more morsel. Moderation is particularly challenging for me when a Taleggio is sitting in front of me.” Steve, I hear you. I found the aged version particularly enticing – rich, complex, slightly stinky but in an alluring way. The difference between the aged and nubile renditions was striking. It was almost like eating a completely different cheese. The younger version was good, but I really think the “cougar” is worth the wait. In a sense the Taleggio really took control of the tasting. As others have noted, after eating the Taleggio everything tasted different. Never before have I had a cheese decimated the flavor of wine so much – in fact I thought it was supposed to be the other way around.
    The other cheeses were excellent as well. We must remember not reject subtle flavors in the presence of cheese giants. I thought the Piave Vecchio was the better of the two. Well complemented by sweets and the IPA it really changed in flavor, becoming much sharper, after trying the “ledge”. This would be good on its own as an addition to a salad or pasta.