Before refrigeration and modern transport, especially in remote mountain regions like The Alps, butter-making and cheesemaking were important ways of preserving milk.
Large, cooked, well-pressed wheels, with as much whey as possible extracted, had a long shelf life and could survive the journey to distant markets. Some of Italy’s best known cow’s milk formaggi are northern Italian cheeses, including Fontina, Taleggio, Gorgonzola, Grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Seeing the huge copper vats of milk being turned into giant wheels of Parmigiano is one of the highlights of my Northern Italian food and wine tours. Alpine communities have a tradition of transhumance, moving livestock to high mountain pastures in summer and back to the villages in the valleys in winter. Wild Alpine grasses, herbs and flowers contribute to the milk’s flavour, and cheeses produced during summer often carry their own appellations to distinguish them from similar cheeses made year-round in the valleys. Here are five of the most famous northern Italian cheeses. If you’re in Sydney, you’ll find these cheeses and many more at Formaggi Ocello in Surry Hills.
Parmigiano Reggiano Emilia-Romagna
It takes 550 litres of milk to make one 50kg wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, the benchmark grating cheese still mostly produced on family-run farms like the one we visit on my Italian food and wine tours. The rind is stencilled with the name ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’, dairy and production date. Aged for the minimum 12 months, it’s mild with a sweet, slightly nutty flavour, developing a sweet-salty crunch by 2 years.
Fontina Valle d’Aosta
Produced in north-easternmost Italy for hundreds of years, semi-soft Fontina has a firm, thin, reddish-brown rind covering a supple, yellow interior with a scattering of small eyes and firm, springy texture. It’s rich and buttery with a slight sweetness and hint of nuttiness and perfect in a caraway-flavoured potato tart topped with watercress (with or without smoked eel or trout).
Casera & Bitto Lombardy
These large wheels of firm cheese from Valtellina, on the Italian-Swiss border, are used in classic Pizzocheri della Valtellina. Casera, made year-round and aged for a max. 10 months, has a mild nutty flavour, while Bitto, made only from summer milk of high Alpine pastures, is aged for 1-10 years, becoming much darker and more intensely flavoured. Mixed herds are common in The Alps and Bitto can contain up to 10% goat’s milk.
Gorgonzola Lombardy & Piedmont
Traditional Gorgonzola Piccante (‘spicy’) is aged at least 3 months and has a firm texture and strong sharp sweetness; though the more commonly seen Gorgonzola is Dolce (‘sweet’). Developed in the 1930s, it’s higher in fat, younger, softer, luscious, and slightly sweet with less blue mould: it makes a beautiful pasta sauce with walnuts. Cheese is no longer produced in Gorgonzola itself, which is now an outlying suburb of Milan.
Taleggio Lombardy, Piedmont & Veneto
Taleggio is proof that not all washed rind cheeses are super smelly. Its wrinkled yellowy-pink rind covers thick squares of soft, buttery cheese with a nutty, slightly salty flavour. Similar to French Reblochon from nearby Savoy, it’s popular melted over boiled potatoes or into risotto and polenta and I love it in a simple pasta bake. Some is still cave-ripened in Lombardy’s Val Taleggio, where it originated in the 11th century.
Updated 30 Dec 2023