This is the first in a new blog series that I am starting, Decoding Italy - I hope to demistify some daily aspects of Italian life (food, wine, cultural) for future visitors to Italy!
The Italian for cheese is formaggio, from the Latin formaticum, meaning 'form' and (according to legend) the month of May, maggio, when milk is at is best. Another word we see often in Italy is cacio, from the Latin caseus. Cacio is just a generic word for formaggio, but we see it frequently: pasta Cacio Pepe (pasta with cheese & black pepper), Caseficio (a place where cheese is made/sold), and caciotta (a form of typical local cheese - we see this everywhere in Umbria).
Types of milk (latte)
As soon as you match your cheese to the Italian animal, the battle is half over!
- latte di Pecora - meaning sheep, makes.... Pecorino cheese!
- latte di Capra - meaning goat, makes... Caprino cheese!
- latte di Mucca/Vacca, also latte vaccino - meaning cow, the majority of Italian cheeses are made from cow's milk.
- latte di Bufala - meaning water buffalo, used for the famous Mozzarella di Bufala
Place of Origin
This is extremely important as many people ask me why they can't find "Asiago" or "Romano" in (let's say) Umbria. Well, the answer to that is because Asiago and Romano are not just types of cheeses, they are places! Asiago is a small alpine village in the Veneto region of Italy. The cheese that takes it's name is a protected cheese (DOP), meaning that it can only be produced in a delineated area to be called a true "Asiago." Romano, know in Italy as Pecorino Romano, is an especially salty type of aged sheep's milk cheese. It is originally from the area around Rome (get it? - Roma... Romana?!). Other famous pecorinos are Pecorino Toscano (from Tuscany) and Pecorino Sardo (from Sardinia).
Now, back to the original question - why can't I find Asiago in Umbria? Well, because it is just not local! It can be found in some of the larger supermarkets, but smaller shops most likely won't stock it as there is no demand for it - Umbrians eat Umbrian cheese!
More famous eponymous cheeses:
- Gorgonzola - the blue-veined masterpiece from the area around Gorgonzola in Lombardy
- Castelmagno - a semi aged cow milk cheese, sometimes mixed with sheep & goat milk from Piedmonte
- Taleggio - the oozy, dreamy wonder originally from the Val Taleggio in Piedmont
- Fontina d'Aosta - don't get it confused with it's Dutch imposter! This is a mountain cheese from Val d'Aosta
- Parmigiano Reggiano - the king of Italian cheeses, named for the towns of Parma and Reggio Emilia in the region of Emilia Romagna
- Ricotta - the most famous by-product of the cheesemaking process. Ricotta literally means "recooked" as the traditional method is to reheat the whey after the curds (cheese form) is removed, coagulating the remaining proteins. Ricotta is most frequently seen in central and southern Italy because these were historically the poorer areas of the country. The cheesemakers would sell their aged cheese forms and keep the fresh ricotta for their families. Now we see ricotta typically used in desserts, most famously with sugar added to make canoli in Sicily or as filling for ravioli. Now here comes the shocker: Ricotta is never used in lasagna in Italy. I repeat: Ricotta is never used in lasagna (we use bechamel sauce)!
- Mascarpone - a northern Italian specialty (let's face it, they make the best butter and cream), mascarpone is made by coagulating cream with citric acid. It doesn't have a lot of flavor on it's own, but like ricotta can be sweetened to use in desserts like the most famous, Tiramisù, or used on it's own to enrich savory risotto dishes.
- Crescenza & Stracchino - two similar fresh cheeses from northern Italy that we often see spread on panini in northern and central Italy. These cheeses have a fresh, slightly sour taste.
After Parmigiano Reggiano, mozzarella is surely Italy's most famous claim to fame in the world of cheese. In our house, we consume massive amounts in the summertime as it is a 'ready-to-eat' dinner: just add tomatoes & basil!
When mozzarella is made from cow's milk, it is known as fior di latte, and this will be written on the package. However, mozzarella in it's purest form is made from Italian water buffalo, Mozzarella di Bufala. Mozzarella di Bufala Campana has the DOP certification and can only come from controlled areas in Campania, Lazio, Puglia and Molise.
Apart from the classic giant balls of goodness, mozzarella also comes in the following forms:
- treccia - braided mozzarella
- bocconcini/ciliegini - small bite-sized balls
- burrata - mozzarella sack filled with cream and mozzarella
- stracciatella - basically the filling of burrata - should be part of your 'last meal before I die'
- mozzarella per pizza - a drier mozzarella, typically used for cooking, such as for pizza topping or stuffed inside of fried zucchini blossoms.
...the last rind
When to eat cheese in Italy? A common myth is that cheese is only enjoyed at the end of the meal. Not true! Here in Italy we eat cheese throughout the meal: on toothpicks known as stuzzichini for antipasto, sliced with cured meats on antipasto plates, the obvious condiment for most pasta dishes, baked as a main course, or served with fruit for dessert.
I've given you the basics here to get started, but obviously there are 1000s of Italian cheeses out there for you to explore: fresh, semi-aged, aged, salted, smoked, covered in ash, hay, leaves, and lees... Remember to ask your cheesemonger for an assaggio - here in Italy they always let you try before you buy!
“Cheese has always been a food that both sophisticated and simple humans love.”
M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf (1942)
Here is a little Cheese Porn from my Food Tours and Cooking Classes in Umbria: