Cheese origins

cheese Ironside Kitchen

Italy produces over 600 different kinds of cheeses. The most renowned have the PDO status and bear historic origins, for example Pecorino Romano’s heritage dates back some 2,000 years.

Surely the stories of all specific Italian cheese types are not crystal clear, yet there’s no doubt about the passion that creates these fine products loved the world over.

Perhaps Italy is even the birthplace of cheese itself. The Romans loved cheese, they loved making and eating it. In the imperial palaces of Romans, the sheep’s milk cheese Pecorino Romano – for example – was a prized dressing at banquets, while its long-term storage capacity made it a staple food for rations when the Roman legions marched. To the breeding of sheep and goats and the preparation of cheeses derived from their milk are dedicated important pages of ancient literature, from Canton, Varro, Columella, Pliny, Virgil. The vast number of monasteries throughout medieval Italy were hubs of cheese-making excellence. It is right in the middle ages that for cheese starts a course of ennobling that gradually leads to its enhancement in the economic, food and cultural. A process that made of the Italian cheeses an integral part of the country’s cuisine and not only of the monastic gastronomy. This sets Italian cheese making apart from the rest of the world.

Still in the Middle Ages, some varieties of cow’s milk cheese became also very important.

Nearly 1000 years ago, the Cistercian monks from the fertile Po Valley, in North of Italy, developed an original recipe to use the excess milk produced in the area. It is thought to have been first made in the Abbey of Chiaravalle in 1135. Due to its grainy structure, so different from all other cheeses, it was given the name “Grana” and now it is known as Grana Padano cheese. Today the production method has hardly changed. Strict dairy farming practices, including a special cattle diet, results in a milk of unique flavour and nutritional value. The outcome is a hard, cooked, semi-fat and slowly aged cheese obtained from raw cow’s milk, partially skimmed by natural surfacing of the cream.

Another cheese which makes history in Italian dairy tradition is Parmigiano Reggiano. its documented origins date back to the 13th century: it has lived through the years, it has travelled the world, yethas remained faithful to its identity and natural uniqueness, thanks to many generations of cheese masters who have cherished this extraordinary art in a limited, fundamental territory. Called the “King of cheese”, it is a cooked and non-pressed cheese with a hard and slowly matured paste, made only from raw milk. The minimum maturation is of 12 months, but only when atapproximately 24 months of aging or more does it reaches it’s highest potential.

The exquisite creamy Gorgonzola cheese, which actually gets its distinctive flavor from the blue mold veins that it develops in its paste, takes its name from the village of Gorgonzola, on the outskirts of Milan. Legend has it that this cheese was made there for the first time in 879 A.D.. By law and tradition, Gorgonzola cheese production is allowed in only some provinces of two Italian regions: Lombardy and Piedmont. It is a raw marbled, soft cheese with a white to straw color and characteristic green-blue veining. Soft and creamy, it has a typically sharp, tasty flavor; its strength varying according to variety.

Historical evidence shows that business transactions and exchanges involving Taleggio date back to the 11th century. It originates in Val Taleggio, which gives the cheese its name, in the province of Bergamo, made of raw milk from the summer Alpine pastures and matured in caves. With its consumption ever on the rise, the production of the cheese has extended to the padanese lowlands. The taste of the cheese is sweet, with a slightly acidic, slightly fragrant taste – sometimes with an aftertaste of truffle.

Asiago is a tasty cheese made from cow’s milk with a cheese making history of more than a thousand years. The technique developed, and, during the early 17th century, production expanded into the neighboring areas of the Asiago plateau: the foothills, the surrounding plains and the nearby Alpine huts of Trentino. Fresh Asiago is a cheese with a young flavor and a taste of milk fresh from the cow, melting in your mouth to release sweet and slightly sour notes. While aged Asiago is a flavorful cheese with a strong personality that, if savored slowly, released its aromatic notes.

Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, as the name explains, comes originally from the Campania region. It is a fresh spun cheese, which owes most of its unique characteristics to the fresh water buffalo’s milk produced in the traditional place of origin. The 12th century, when the buffalos were increasingly appreciated for their milk yield, produced the first historic documents that evidence how the monks of the San Lorenzo in Capua monastery made a cheese called “mozza” or “provatura” (when smoked), There are various pieces of evidence from the 14th century that testify to the commercialization of buffalo milk derivatives, usually destined for the prosperous Neapolitan and Salerno markets. However, it would be necessary to wait until 1570 before the expression “mozzarella” appeared for the first time in the famous text by Barolomeo Scappi, chef to the Papal court.

The Montasio cheese is another excellent Italian cheese. The cheese is named after the Montasio massif in Friuli Venezia Giulia. It has been produced in the summer pastures of the massif since the 18th century, through the loving care of the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Moggio Udinese. Since then, the skill of Montasio production has spread to the Julian and Carnic Alps and on down into the plains of Friuli and Veneto, while still holding true to the traditional 18th century recipe. It is a medium-hard, cooked-curd cheese with different stages of maturation that give rise to its varied range of sensorial features.

Provolone Valpadana emerged during the second half of the XIX century, born out of a happy marriage between the range of stretched curd cheeses coming from the southenr Italy, and the dairy vocation of Val Padana. In 1861 the unification of Italy made it possible to overcome the barriers between the various areas of the peninsula, which let to entrepreneurs coming from the south of Italy to settle in Val Padana. They were determined to promote and defend the culture and consumption of their cheeses across the country and Val Padana offers much in terms of good milk for making cheese.

Many other cheeses make the Italian dairy tradition great. One of these is mozzarella. Like Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, it is a fresh soft, spun cheese fermented with lactic acid bacteria, but made from cow’s milk. It is native of central and southern Italy, but over time it has spread throughout the country and is known all over the world. Generally, mozzarella has a spherical shape, but can also be found in other molds. of the most distinctive feature of mozzarella is its soft, rind less, smooth, shiny and milky white surface. Typically it has a fibrous structure with overlapping layers which release a milky liquid when cut or lightly pressed.

Mascarpone is a fresh, soft, spreadable cheese, originally typical of the Lombardy regaion, buttoday commonly produced throughout Italy. Unlike all the other Italian cheese, Mascarpone is made from cream to which smalll amounts of milk are generally added.

Another important and well-known Italian dairy product is Ricotta. There are many different types: it can be made from the milk of cow, sheep, goat or buffalo with methods of production which reflect various local traditions. The main ingredient however is whey obtained by the cheese making process. Milk and cream are often added. The name “ricotta” (literally meaning “recooked”) is derived from the double cooking to which the whey is subjected during processing.

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