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 cheeses are produced in northern Italy, including Fontina, Taleggio, Gorgonzola, Grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano. 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 produced year-round in the valleys. Here are five of northern Italy’s most famous cheeses. If you’re in Sydney, you’ll find these cheeses and many more at Formaggi Ocello in Surry Hills. Well worth a visit!
Fontina Valle d’Aosta
Produced in north-easternmost Italy for hundreds of years, 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.
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. Some is still cave-ripened in Lombardy’s Val Taleggio, where it originated in the 11th century.
Casera & Bitto Lombardy
These large wheels of firm cheese from Valtellina, on the Italian-Swiss border, are both 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 the 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. Cheese is no longer produced in Gorgonzola itself, which is now an outlying suburb of Milan.
Parmigiano Reggiano & Grana Padano Emilia Romagna
It takes 570 litres of milk to make one 35kg wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, the benchmark parmesan, which is still mostly produced on family-run farms. The rind is stencilled with the name ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ alongside the mark of the consorzio (producer’s association), dairy, date of production, and a grade from 1 to 5. Aged for the min. 14 months, it’s mild with a sweet, slightly nutty flavour, developing a sweet-salty crunch by 2 years. Very similar Grana Padano is produced in a wider area of northern Italy and can be used interchangeably with Parmigiano Reggiano.
How should parmesan be cut?
Parmesan, whether it’s Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano should always be ‘broken’ from a whole wheel with a parmesan knife, a blunt wedged-shape blade especially designed for this purpose.
How should you buy parmesan?
Always buy pieces of parmigiano or grana ‘broken’ from a whole wheel with a parmesan knife if possible and never pre-grated.
What is parmesan cheese?
The name ‘parmesan’ refers to hard grating cheeses all over the world, from the best Italian parmigiano to the worst, pre-grated, rancid-smelling powders on supermarket shelves. This type of cheese is sometimes also called ‘grana’ because of to its grainy texture. One of Italy’s oldest cheese styles, it may date to around 1000 B.C. and was very important in medieval times, sometimes used as currency, due to its long shelf life. Parmigiano Reggiano, produced to very strict guidelines in a designated area of Emilia-Romagna, is considered the benchmark parmesan.
Is Grana the same as Parmigiano?
Grana Padano is a parmesan-style cheese very similar to the more famous Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s produced in a wider area of Italy including Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto and looks very similar to Parmigiano, its rind stencilled with the words ‘Grana Padano’, the mark of the consorzio, dairy, and date. It can be used interchangeably with Parmigiano Reggiano.