From the most famous Parmigiano to the most secluded pecorino, get ready to tour through the mondo magnifico of Italian cheese. We’ll talk about the history, production, and trivia for each cheese, and then tell you what to pair with it at your next festa. So grab a class of vino and mangiare!
There’s cheese shopping, and then there’s Italian cheese shopping. In most other places, the goods are restrained behind a counter – and, in turn, you’re restrained from the goods – providing a strict order to the buying process. Italy, on the other hand, favors the exhilarating chaos of literally stumbling into your next favorite cheese. There’s so much clutter between stacked wheels and hanging knobs that injuries are likely (or maybe that’s just me), but there’s also a distinctive charm to the sensory overload. And while almost every cheese is on display this way, one of the biggest culprits is provolone, the notorious hanging cheese.
Regardless of its starting shape – either a ball, a pear, or a long sausage – provolone is often distinguished by its deep, sculpted depressions thanks to the rope from which it hangs. Although months’ worth of gravity would shape any cheese, provolone is particularly affected because, like mozzarella, it’s a pasta filata (stretched curd) cheese, giving it a malleable – but crumbly from aging – softness that lasts through the aging process. Made from fresh, unskimmed cow’s milk, curds are immediately worked into their stretchy, springy consistency, before they’re hand formed into whatever shape the maker chooses. From there, the forms are salted and simply allowed to age without any further treatment.
Provolone is a cheese with quite a few variables, and so every one of the maker’s choices can cause massive changes in the final product, either in its taste or in its desired use. On the most superficial level, the shape of the cheese will affect how consumers use it in the kitchen. Originally, provolone was only made in ball form as it was the simplest method of production. Nowadays this shape is ideal for wedging and grating, but it presents difficulty for slicing (the sandwich cheese wasn’t always so sandwich-friendly). In the early 1900′s, artisans invented the “salami” shape, which could be cut down into small, manageable blocks that wouldn’t roll around on a cutting board, and thus the two-shape dilemma was born.
Beyond the hand-molding process, though, other choices include the type of lipase (the enzyme applied to the milk in the bacteria culture) that takes effect during the aging process. Although it’s only one singular strain of enzyme, lipase from a goat’s stomach will produce a substantially sharper cheese than that from a calf. Therefore, provolone is effectively split into two categories: provolone picante, made sharp from goat’s lipase, and provolone dulce, made sweet from calf’s lipase. These respective flavors are intensified by longer aging processes, which can range from a few months (mild) to an entire year for the most intense kinds.
In aging, too, the setting is important for creating provolone’s distinctive moist and malleable character. Although the cheese has substantially less water content than mozzarella – 45 percent compared to 50-60 percent – and will break apart with some doing, it is still significantly higher than most other cheeses. Therefore, a good provolone demands a warm, humid hanging environment, which will also facilitate the enzymes at work. The hanging is also significant for the moisture content; wooden boards, on which most cheeses are aged, specially facilitate a drying process that will create a more solid texture. In contrast, hanging allows wet air to maintain provolone’s internal equilibrium – some makers will apply a wax rind to keep even more moisture in. Because the water content makes the cheese open to new flavors too, some makers offer a smoked provolone that intensifies the native sharpness (or sweetness, depending on the variant).
Provolone’s demand for humidity and wetness are a characteristic of its origins in southern Italy. While there is no one specific place of origin, many Roman writers circa the first century composed agricultural diaries about its production, ranging in location from Naples and the shore along Mount Vesuvius to the island of Sardinia, which became a major exporter of the cheese in the 16th century. The cheese-heavy Campania and Lombardy regions are the only places which lay claim to DOP protection of provolone, earning it for the variants Provolone Valpadana (between Milan and Udine) and Provolone del Monaco (Naples). In modern times, most production has moved north to Lombardy and also to Veneto (of Venetian fame), which lie in the Po River Valley. The river, the neighboring coast, and the precipitation from the nearby Alps make a moist, hospitable climate for provolone to thrive.
On the consumer side, provolone, like many other Italian cheeses, is versatile and well beloved in many native dishes. Like Parmigiano-Reggiano, provolone makes for a grate (mamma mia!) cheese on top of a pasta dish or slice of pizza. It’s also a favorite for antipasto; roll up a slice and pair with some prosciutto, olives, capicola, and some spicy soppressata. It even goes with other cheeses, too! Try culture‘s own bocconcini skewers paired with a slice.
Stateside, provolone has been pirated into an American variation of sorts – much milder and pumped onto deli and cold-cut counters as quick and as fresh as possible. It has also been regionally adopted into a Pennsylvania classic, as they lay claim to the best provolone-based pizza cheese formula in the nation (which, to an Italian, is just plain wrong). It’s also one of the staple cheeses used in Philly cheesesteaks, and there have been many a food fight regarding its supremacy over American and “Cheez Whiz.”
Regardless of how you use it, please, for the love of all that is Italian and holy, try some of these flavorful imported options:
- Auricchio: A national producer in Italy with five variants of provolone–picante, dolce, giovane (young), stravecchio (aged long), and gustoso (bold).
- Guffanti Formaggi: One of the main producers of Provolone Valpadano.
- Fior d’Agerola: A proud Neapolitan producer of Provolone di Monaco.
For those of you still plugging American pride (thanks, World Cup), Bel Gioioso makes a pretty good product too (now pardon me while I go cry in a corner).
Photo Credit: Provolone and tomato photo courtesy of Shutterstock