Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Cheesy Sunday Afternoon

On Sunday afternoon Alex, Cass and I attended a program at the Museo ItaloAmericano in Ft. Mason Center – a talk by Janet Fletcher on Italian cheeses followed by a tasting. Even better, it was free, thanks to support from Wells Fargo Bank.

In the past the three of us had taken a number of classes taught by Janet at The Cheese School of San Francisco and had found them uniformly excellent. Janet – who among other things writes the “The Cheese Course” column for the San Francisco Chronicle – has a wonderful knack of explaining about a cheese in the context of its place of origin. She also co-authored with Rosetta Costantino one of my favorite cookbooks - “My Calabria – which was published last year. Her skill in weaving a narrative about food, culture, history and geography are very much in evidence there too. Her most recent book is “Cheese & Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing, and Enjoying” – Janet is all about food!

Janet led off Sunday’s program with a general overview of Italian cheeses, then focused on the five cheeses that we were to taste at the end of the program:

1. Brunet – pasteurized goat milk – Piemonte
2. Marzolino Rosso – raw sheep milk – Toscana
3. Brescianella Stagionata – raw cow milk – Lombardia
4. Canestrato di Moliterno – raw sheep and goat milk – Basilicata
5. Blu di Valcasotto – raw sheep milk – Piemonte

As shown on the following map, the cheeses came from all over Italy.

Janet explained that all five of the cheeses had been provided by Fresca Italia, Michele Lanza’s Italian cheese and specialty food import company in Brisbane. She pointed out that Michele, who is originally from Basilicata, has done a great deal to expand the variety of Italian cheeses which are available to us at markets and restaurants here in California. Thank you Michele and Fresca Italia!!

Janet also told us that she had not specified the cheeses she wanted for the program, but had rather left it to Fresca Italia to select a range of cheeses with regional and milk-type variation that they felt were at their peak. As Janet pointed out, that is a good strategy to follow whenever one buys cheese.

Following Janet’s formal remarks, we moved to an adjacent room where we enjoyed samples of the five cheeses, together with a red wine (2008 La Maialina Chianti Classico) and a white wine (2009 Mancini Vermentino di Gallura) wine that Janet had selected, and Janet did some book signing. I took the following picture of a set of the samples – unfortunately I was not able to get a shot of the cheeses before they were cut.

1. Brunet – pasteurized goat milk – Piemonte

This cheese was the subject of one of Janet’s articles in The Cheese Course which is worth reading. It is produced by the Caseificio dell'Alta Langa in the town of Bosia in Piemonte, a firm that produces a number of other excellent cheeses (La Tur is another of their cheeses we like a lot). Brunet, the name of a breed of goat, is not a traditional name of an Italian cheese, but rather a proprietary name given to the cheese by the producer, a recent trend in Italy that seems to be increasing as producers seek to stake out marketing territory. In her article Janet described the flavor as follows:

Brunet's soft, thin, bloomy rind fuses with its creamy interior; don't even think about trying to cut the rind away. The supple ivory paste, or interior, smells of mushrooms and creme fraiche and feels like silk on the tongue. A tangy finish keeps the cheese from being cloying.”

The cheese also made her top 10 list for 2008.

2. Marzolino Rosso – raw sheep milk – Toscana

There is a traditional Tuscan sheep milk cheese called Marzolino del Chianti which, as the name indicates, comes from the Chianti area of Toscana between Firenze and Siena. As the name also suggests, in the past it was primarily produced in March (“marzo” is March in Italian) using the milk from sheep that had been eating the new grass on the Tuscan hillsides.

Marzolino Rosso is basically the traditional Marzolino which has been rubbed with a tomato paste to give it a reddish hue. This can be seen in the above photos – the traditional Marzolino del Chianti is on the left, and a slice of the Marzolino Rosso is on the right. As far as I could tell, the tomato paste did not affect the flavor, although my piece did not include any of the rind.

I was not able to determine exactly from where in Toscana the cheese we had comes. Janet said it is purchased from the producers by the
Luigi Guffanti firm in Arona, in northern Piemonte (one of Italy’s leading cheese agers - they have been at it since 1876!), who then age it before selling it to distributors. I have always wanted to visit the Guffanti caves!

Janet also did an
article in The Cheese Course about Marzolino Rosso, in which she described it as follows:

“…it has an ivory interior with the warm, milky fragrance of melted butter. The flavor starts sweet and nutty but finishes with a faint bitterness.”

This cheese also made her top 10 list for 2008.

3. Brescianella Stagionata – raw cow milk – Lombardia

The Brescianella Stagionata is another traditional cheese, this one from around the town of Brescia northeast of Milano, from which the cheese derives its name (“stationata” simply means “aged”). It struck me as very similar to a Taleggio. Here is Culture’s take on the cheese:

Brescianella Stagionata is a washed rind cheese with a classic orange-brown, slightly sticky rind, marked with linear indentations where the cheeses have matured on straw. Aromas are pungent and sweet. The interior paste of the cheese is smooth and yielding and ivory-white in color. Flavors are rich and milky, with notes of vanilla and hazelnuts, and sweet with a lingering grassy aftertaste.”

It is another cheese which spends some time in Guffanti’s caves before making its way to market. Note to self – future trip to Arona a must.

4. Canestrato di Moliterno – raw sheep and goat milk – Basilicata

For the fourth cheese – the Canestrato di Moliterno - we headed far south to Michele Lanza’s home region of Basilicata (if you would like to learn more about that region here is a great video narrated by Francis Ford Coppola whose relatives came from the region). Molierno is a hill town in the mountains in the province of Potenza and over the years a combination of numerous sheep and goat herds in the area, as well as a climate favorable for aging cheese, resulted in the town becoming a center of cheese production. “Canestrato” refers to the woven baskets seen above used to hold the cheese when it is first made, and which give the rind a distinctive pattern. Typically 70-90% of the milk used for its production is sheep milk, and the balance goat milk. The cheese was very good with a nutty flavor and nice level of saltiness – similar to a number of other Italian sheep milk cheeses I have had in the past such as Pecorino Romano or Fiore Sardo.

5. Blu di Valcasotto – raw sheep milk – Piemonte

For the final cheese – a blue– we headed back north to the small town of Valcasotto in the Ligurian Alps just a few miles from the French border. Beppino Occelli is another major cheese producer in Piemonte with a broad portfolio of cheese types, similar to Caseificio dell'Alta Langa, and a sophisticated marketing approach. The Blu di Valcasotto seems to be a relatively new cheese for the company, although it may be that, for marketing reasons, they are simply distributing the same or a very similar cheese under different names. I enjoyed the cheese, although my preference in blue cheeses tends towards younger and milder varieties.


While all the cheeses were good and I would look forward to trying them all again, our overall #1 preferences for the day were:

Cass: Brunet
Alex: Marzolino Rosso
Mike: Brescianella Stagionata

It just goes to show you that after so many cheese tastings together, our preferences head in different directions. Thanks again to Janet, Fresca Italia, the Museo and Wells Fargo for a most enjoyable event.

1 comment:

cassie said...

Great and comprehensive post! I thoroughly enjoyed each of these cheeses and cannot wait to taste them again. Thanks to the Museo, Janet & Wells Fargo.