Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Tour of Italy ~ Day 6... Let's Cut the Cheese

Literally, let's cut the cheese...  Don't be afraid to try some of the more rustic deep flavored cheeses of the Italian Countryside. Did you know that Italy is one of the World's Largest cheese producers, - (over four hundred by some counts), but most of the world does not know this because so many cheese are produced strictly on a regional basis catering only to the regional markets. Today we are going to only high-light a few of the most popular ones.

Parmigiano-Reggiano:  fabricated in many places in the US known Parmesan , true Parmigiano-Reggiano is made only in several provinces in the region of Lombardy. According to legend, it was created in the course of the Middle Ages in Bibbiano, in the province of Reggio Emilia. It is produced from the milk of pasture grazed cows and is only made between April through November. It is a hard, granular cheese and it is aged for at least 14 months before being sold. The favored aging time is at least 3 years. These cheeses can range from a soft cloudy white to a dark straw color and sometimes develop little delicious protein crystals that crunch and explode with flavor when eaten. Theses cheeses are ideal for any Italian meal, whether grated to add rich bold flavors to your dish or as a notable table cheese.  

Mozzarella: For most traditional Italians, mozzarella only means Mozzarella di Bufala (buffalo mozzarella), made from domesticated water buffalo milk but to many others, mozzarella fior di latte, which is made from fresh pasteurized or unpasteurized cow's milk, is favored but is believed to lack luscious characteristics of the original. Fresh mozzarella is generally white, but may vary seasonally or regionally, to slightly yellow depending on the milk used and the diet of the animal. It is known to be a semi-soft cheese due to its high moisture content and is traditionally served the day after it is made, but can be kept in it's brine for up to a week. You can recognize a good mozzarella by it's thin glossy skin, springy texture, clean color and fresh milky aroma.  Most Italian mozzarella is produced in Bittipaglia, south of Naples or slightly to the north in Caserta. 

Pecorino: To the knowledge of a food lovers, the sight of the rolling Italian countrysides dotted with cypresses and umbrella pines, in the foreground.. flocks of sheep grazing in the afternoon sun, means pecorino cheese. A family of hard Italian cheeses made from ewe's milk. It is usually an aged pungent cheese intended more for grating than eating. But there are a few of us cheese lovers that really love a small bite of good pecorino warmed on a piece of Sicilian flat bread or water cracker, served with fresh grapes or figs. Pecorino cheeses come in a wide variety of styles depending on how long they have been aged. The more matured cheeses, referred to as stagionato ("seasoned" or "aged" ), the harder yet still crumbly in texture they are and they have buttery and/or nutty flavors. The other two types, known as semi-stagionato and fresco, have a softer texture and milder creamy milk taste. Pecorino cheeses is especially prevalent from the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. In Southern Italy, it is traditional to add black peppercorns or red chilli flakes to Pecorino, producing what is called Pecorino Pepato (literally, "peppered Pecorino"). Today many others are made, for example walnuts or tiny pieces of white or black truffle are added to create a unique flavored cheese. And the cheese commonly known as Romano falls in this family and is actually produced in Sardinia and then shipped to Rome. 

Asiago: just like any good fairy tale that starts out "Once upon a time..." so goes the history of Asiago. Once upon a time, Asiago cheeses used to be made from sheep milk in the high alpine regions of Veneto and in those regional areas they are still known pegorin, even though Asiago cheese has been made exclusively from cow's milk since the early sixteen century. Today, Asiago is produced mainly in the Trentino area and is commonly made in two versions. Asiago styles of cheese can assume different textures, according to its age, from smooth for the fresh Asiago (Asiago Pressato) aged three to five months, which is often sliced to for paninis or sandwiches or melted on a variety of dishes. To working it's way up to a crumbly texture for the aged cheese (Asiago d'allevo), aged maybe nine months or longer, which has the flavor reminiscent of Parmesan and is often grated in salads, soups, pastas, and sauces. Becoming sharper and more interesting in flavor as they age, the very mature Asiagos are hard to come by, even in Italy. 

Gorgonzola:  one of the famous world know cheeses, Gorgonzola originally came from the town of the same name in the northern region of Lombardy. It was a stop over for the herdsmen that were driving their cattle between the Alps and the grassy plains above the Po Valley. The legend is that the creation of this cheese was the delicious outcome of a way of preserving all the milk that was accumulated while the herds were all in one spot together. Today most Gorgonzola cheeses are made in the Piedmont area and there are two types of cheese. These cheese are started out the same, by using whole cow's milk and starter bacteria is added, along with controlled portions of spores of the mold Penicillium glaucum. Penicillium roqueforti, which is commonly used in Roquefort cheese, may also be used. The whey is then removed during curdling, and then aged at low temperatures. During the aging process metal rods are quickly inserted and removed, creating air channels that allow the mold spores to grow into hyphae and cause the cheese's characteristic veining. Gorgonzola dolce is typically aged for three to four months, resulting in a smooth creamy cheese, similar to paste that is ofteh used as a spread on crusty bread or unflavored crackers. The length of the aging process determines the consistency of the cheese, which gets firmer as it ripens, resulting in what is better known to Americans as Gorgonzola Naturale, which is cured longer than three or four months. Both types of cheeses have the characteristics of the blue-green veins running through them and both cheeses are known as fine eating cheeses. Gorgonzola is typically crumbled on soups or salads or better known for being used as a snack at the end of a meal often being served with sliced pears and candied walnuts. Side note: Gorgonzola made with goat's milk is firm and salty. It is made usually in the Prealpi area of Piedmont and Lombardy, especially in the provinces of Lecco and Alessandria.

Taleggio: known as the "Square" cheese. This soft, buttery amber-colored rind cheese is made from a mix of Holstein and brown Swiss cow's milk in the Lombardy region where the cows are allowed to graze on the lush spring-fed pastures. The production takes place every autumn and winter when the cows are tired after there long journey through the summer around these alpine pastures, which has made the milk high in butter fat. This cheese often has a strong aroma, but its flavor is usually mild with an unusual fruity tang. This cheese is also know for it's washed rind, which is usually very thin and eatable. This cheese is different from other cheeses in that as it ages it gets softer instead of harder. They let this cheese age only about five to six weeks and it ranges in color from pale straw to creamy yellow with a orangy-caramel crust. As it ages  it begins to develop a slight tang or smokiness that is similar to the flavor of white truffles. In Italy this cheese is often served with dried-cured beef and sliced bresaola.

Baked Taleggio

1 pkg. (4 oz.) refrigerated crescent dinner rolls
1 small square (8 oz.) Taleggio cheese  (any creamy cheese works)
1/2 tsp. dill weed or any dry salad dressing mix
1 egg white, lightly beaten

PREHEAT oven to 350°F. Unroll dough on lightly greased baking sheet; press seams together to form 12x4-inch rectangle.
SPRINKLE cheese with dill; lightly press dill into cheese. Place cheese, dill side up, in center of dough. Bring dough up over cheese to completely enclose cheese; press edges together to seal. Brush with egg white.
BAKE 15 to 18 min. or until lightly browned. Serve with your favorite Crackers, French bread slices or cut-up fresh fruit.

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