Italian cheese

Italian cheese

By
Stefano de Pieri
Contains
25 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740661713
Photographer
Earl Carter

Cheese is fundamental to Italian cooking and eating. I cannot comprehend how people can cook pasta and omit the cheese, seriously overlooking the intimate relationship between pasta, sauce and cheese. There is also a growing lack of knowledge and about cheese in general, a fact related, in my opinion, to the industrialisation of cheese. Consumers have succumbed to the lure of processed cheese, in the same manner as they have with bread. They are happy with what I call ‘plastic’ cheese, that ubiquitous slice of indigestible material that’s pushed into children’s lunches, some sandwiches and melted into toasts or burgers.

There is nothing less than an international conspiracy led by multinationals to eliminate any trace of real cheese made from raw milk. In order to conquer the world with artificial cheese, the health factor has been agitated by smart manipulators of people’s basic fears: eat raw milk cheese and, if you are pregnant, your baby will die! This is terrorism, aided and abetted, among others, by the Australian and New Zealand regulators. As a result we cannot import certain traditional European cheese and, more importantly, we cannot make domestic cheese with raw milk. Milk must be pasteurised if you want to make legal Australian cheese and in doing so certain basic elements of flavour – ultimately it is all about flavour – and texture cannot be achieved.

The regulators and manufacturers would be happy if there were only a few types of cheese, made like plastic, easily transportable with long life – read: shelf life – achieved by eliminating any sign of life in the cheese. For this state of affairs I am pointing the finger at ignorant politicians, who have not taken an interest in this issue. Any politician who pretends to be interested in food is no more than just another accomplice in the destruction of cheese.

I am pointing the finger at the Ministers for Health and Agriculture who are happy to sell out Australia’s overall best interests to conform to the wishes of US Food and Agriculture lobby. I am pointing the finger at faceless bureaucrats and regulators who go to work without any passion or interest in the very matter they are supposed to regulate. They are the very same people who want to flog us genetically modified foods, even BEFORE knowing what the consequences will be. These are the people who enforced the destruction of a consignment of Roquefort cheese because it is made with raw milk. The French, avid consumers of cheese, must be impressed by the fact that their food is illegal in our country! The very same regulator tried to enforce a ban on the import of Parmigiano, which simply would have led to a revolt by the Italian community in Australia. Has anybody ever seen anyone getting sick from eating Parmigiano? I would have a nervous breakdown without it! And where is the famous freedom of choice? Why are cigarettes and alcohol being sold, but not cheese from raw milk? I sometimes get the feeling that I’m living in an insane Kafka-like world of nightmares.

Pietro Sardo of Slow Food says that in Europe real cheese is also under threat, much for the same reasons: ‘globalisation demands large quantities, competitive price, a continuous production cycle and guaranteed hygiene, so, in practice, EC legislation has enshrined the interests of food multinationals in community law. Consumers have been willing accomplices. They have betrayed local products for the siren song of hypermarkets’ refrigerated counters. The cheeses people buy in these outlets are sanitised, odourless and made from machines that spit them out as if they were a die-cast’.

The issue of cheese points, once again, to the need for a Ministry for Food, one central agency to deal with all policy matters relating to food. Ultimately there should be only one port of call, rather than myriad organisations working with subterfuge and able to conveniently disappear from public view. If there were a Minister for Food, powerful lobbies may even be more successful at corrupting processes, but at least corruption would become transparent. At the moment, insidious regulations are passed without thinking people being even remotely aware of them or their consequences.

There are some popular names when it comes to Italian cheese: mozzarella, ricotta, mascarpone, provolone, pecorino, grana, Parmigiano Reggiano, gorgonzola (dolce and piccante), taleggio, asiago and fontina. These types of cheese have become part of our culinary language here in Australia, even though in reality often these cheeses only share the name with the real thing.

The purpose of this chapter is to provide a quick overview of how some cheeses are used in cooking and on a cheese platter, and why their imitation should be avoided altogether.

Ricotta

Ricotta is the first of the specialist cheeses made by migrant communities in the urban centres of Australia. Long before it became fashionable to cook with or simply eat specialist cheeses from the many regions of Australia, there were ‘true believers’ working in the industrial suburbs of the major cities making their own versions of ricotta, mozzarella and other cheeses permitted by the regulations.

Some would say that ricotta is not really a cheese, because it is made from whey, which is actually a by-product of cheese-making. To make the cheese, milk is curdled with rennet. Not all of the milk turns to cheese, and some protein escapes into the residual liquid called the whey. When whey is re-cooked (hence the word ricotta – ‘cotta’ means cooked in Italian) and some acid is added, a delicate curd is formed. This is ricotta, characteristically low in fat, soft or well drained, depending on the type and naturally quite ‘sweet’.

Not all ricotta made in Australia is obtained completely from the whey. Manufacturers tend to add more milk or milk in powder form to make a richer, fattier curd. If you read the ingredients list you’ll be able to find out which ricotta is made with what milk. The addition of extra milk of either kind tends to increase the fat content, so if you’re looking for low-fat ricotta you must be careful with your choice.

Non-artisan ricotta is made with semi-skimmed milk, and this product can sometimes be gritty and unpleasant. I have often found it impossible to cook with gritty, lumpy or wet ricotta or one that has a combination of all three faults. With such immense variation, when you see a recipe calling for ricotta, be careful about what you buy. ‘Use the best ingredients possible’ is one of those phrases that is particularly relevant when it concerns the use of ricotta in the kitchen. Ricotta is an essential ingredient in Italian cooking.

Its texture, especially when made properly, is delicate and light. This non-cheese takes on the flavour of other ingredients, both savoury and sweet. Hence ricotta is delicious when mixed with blanched spinach to go into a classic ravioli or cannelloni. It is equally delicious if you don’t care about fat – when whisked into double cream and served with honey, or candied orange peel, almond, sugar or rose water.

Ricotta mixes well with chocolate, and sultanas, too. It can be supported or surrounded by shortcrust pastry, as in the many variations of torta di ricotta, including the famous pastiera napoletana – a ricotta tart containing wheat boiled in sugar and milk.

One of my favourites is homemade fettuccine, dressed with a traditional Bolognese sauce, grated parmesan, fresh ricotta and a pinch of cinnamon.

An Indian friend of mine makes a rich tomato sauce with ginger and garlic, fries thick ricotta slices in oil until brown, and places the cheese back into the sauce, finishing off the dish with coriander sprigs.

Mozzarella

There are many types of mozzarella, which is essentially a fresh cheese that can be soft or semi-hard. The word mozzarella derives from the word mozzare, which means to tear or pull. This refers to the process of making this type of fresh cheese, and precisely to the point where the expert cheese-maker begins to pull and stretch the elastic mass of curd so that the outer layer forms the skin within which the soft curd is found. Each ball is then placed in a cold brine solution. What you get then is a ball containing moist, milky layers of spun curd covered with a thin rind.

In Australia, unfortunately, mozzarella is usually a tasteless, grated concoction made for the cheap pizza market. It is possibly one of our major exports for the growing international craving for pizza, especially in Japan. Over the last twenty years, this vulgar cheese has been somewhat substituted in the kitchen with ‘bocconcini’, which are, I guess, an improvement.

Bocconcini – or fior di latte (flower of the milk) – is fresh stretched curd cheese sold uncured, resting in a salty brine. Buffalo mozzarella is made with buffalo milk. It has a distinctive soft, spongy texture, which absorbs oil easily, as in the dish insalata caprese. Mozzarella also goes into dishes such as parmigiana di melanzane, because it melts well. Buffalo mozzarella is made in Australia and I believe it is also possible to purchase imported ones. It may be a little dear, but worth the experience. Technically, this is the only real fresh mozzarella. It dates back to time immemorial, to the swampy, malarial areas near Naples and it was not as highly regarded as it is now.

Provolone

This cheese can be mild or ‘piccante’ (sharp) and is typical of Southern Italy, although these days masses of it are produced in the north of Italy. Besides being good to eat, when of good reputable quality, it can liven up some soups, frittata, tarts and various stuffings.

Provolone, Provole, Caciocavallo and Scamorza are all mature stretched-curd cheeses. Hot whey and water are used to scald the curds in order to firm them and prevent further acid development. The water added is at 90–95°C. This makes the curds melt and consolidate into a thick, fibrous, pliable mass. The warm curd mass is kneaded until it is smooth and shiny, then cut into long pieces and pulled into long threads.

By comparison with mozzarella, these harder stretched cheese types are worked more intensively to expel moisture. They come in many shapes, from giant sausages, to cones, to bells and pear shapes. As they age they can become more ‘piccante’.

Pecorino

The most concentrated and driest forms of cheese are the hard cooked ones such as Parmigiano Reggiano and pecorino. The curd for these cheeses is cut finely, and then it is cooked and scalded at a high temperature. The result is a dry and dense mass, but not a brittle one. The external surface is oiled to form a rind and maturation occurs over a year in a warm place.

Pecorino is an ewe’s milk cheese. It is also regional, coming from places such as Lazio (Pecorino Romano), Tuscany (Toscano) or Sardinia (Sardo). What’s upsetting about most Australian pecorino is that, with a few notable exceptions, it is made with cow’s milk. Once again, this abominable practice goes to show that buying and using cheese requires one to be alert and street-wise.

Gorgonzola

Gorgonzola – a cheese I rank as important as Parmigiano Reggiano, even though it has fewer applications besides eating. The flavour of freshly made egg fettuccine with a gorgonzola sauce is one of life’s great, simple pleasures. Also, polenta and gorgonzola I would choose as the food to take to the moon if I were to live there for a long time!

Gorgonzola refers to the town from where this cheese originates. It is a blue cheese. The spores of a blue mould penicillium gorgonzola are introduced into two curds, one from the evening’s milk and one from the following morning’s. The mixing of two curds causes the large gaps that are visible in gorgonzola and it is in these gaps that the blue mould develops. Gorgonzola is aged in cool and humid underground facilities.

There is traditional gorgonzola, called piccante, and there is a second version, made only from one vat of milk, which is sweeter. It lacks the complexity of the piccante, but obviously it appeals to many. In Australia, buyers should beware of any gorgonzola not sold from a large wheel as it may be too old. One common problem is when you notice a significant darkening near the outer surface – that is a sign the cheese is old and oxidised and it’s likely it’ll be too salty.

Taleggio

Taleggio is a soft cheese originating from Lombardy in the north of Italy. It is also a washed rind cheese, perhaps the only one in Italy. It has been matured over the centuries in the caves of the Val Sassina, where the microclimate suits its maturation process.

Taleggio as a name is a relatively recent invention. It was probably known as stracchino, from the word stracco, meaning tired, as the cows were after descending from the Alpine valleys before the onset of winter.

There are not many good taleggios around in Australia, so once again you must look out for a reputable one like Mauri, which also makes the best gorgonzola. Look for a thin rind, lightly flecked with pinkish brown and dusted with white mould. It should be mature when it begins to show signs of oozing around the edge.

Fontina

Authentic fontina comes from the upper north-west of Italy in the region of Valle d’Aosta. It is a melting cheese that is often eaten in soft polenta or even on pizza. I understand it is now impossible – read illegal – to import fontina. You may find a replacement like a raclette, although it has a very different taste. To adapt to recipes featuring fontina, consult a cheese specialist about what would be a good substitute.

Asiago

Fresh asiago is likely to come from pasteurised milk. Asiago is in the category of semi-hard cheeses, although that can mean different things. Ageing starts at three months or nine months and more. The older Asiago is actually good for grating. Together with Parmigiano Reggiano, taleggio, gorgonzola, fontina, montasio, provolone Grana Padano and Pecorino Romano, asiago is accredited under the DOC system.

This was introduced after World War II to protect the integrity of certain products, like wine and cheese, so that the benchmark ones could not be spoiled by rogue imitations and substitutions.

The town of Asiago, set on a plateau above Vicenza, has provided many migrants to Australia, particularly to Melbourne. It is a typical mountain cheese. I love it with grilled white polenta and glass of light red.

Grana

Grana can be used in the same way as Parmigiano, but as it is less expensive it can be used in everyday dishes and not just kept for special occasions. The milk for grana – which means grainy – is collected from 27 provinces in the northern Italian plains known as Pianura Padana.

Grana is a more commercial cheese and therefore the quality may very enormously. In Australia it is often sold far too fresh and it is usually price-driven. If it is semi-soft it is best to ignore it, unless you really have no choice.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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