In this blog series, Molly will be (virtually) traveling around the globe to explore the way cheeses are enjoyed and incorporated into different cuisines. Some of these cheeses and methods might seem familiar, while others might be completely new to you. Last week we talked about France. Kevin was the winner of a free issue of culture – read on to find out how you can win a copy, too! Get more stamps on your cheese passport and join us for a historical and cultural adventure!
I have to admit, I have a soft spot for Italy and its cheeses. One of my favorite cheese memories involves eating a knot of Mozzarella di Bufala like an apple, standing on the side of the road in a small town in southern Italy with my high school classmates on a hot June day. As a college student in a study abroad program, I lived with an Italian family, and a typical dinner of spaghetti with a light cherry tomato sauce always included a shaving of peppery Pecorino Romano. During my stint working at an Italian wine bar, my favorite staff meal was pasta with peas and creamy Gorgonzola sauce.
Italian cheese culture stretches far beyond the melted mozzarella on pizza or the provolone on a sandwich. Just like in France, the cheese tradition of Italy is tied to the geography, history, and culture of the country. Remember that France produces at least 350 to 400 distinct varieties of cheese, though it’s probably more like 1000? Italy has that number matched, if not beat. Italians are a proud group, and this pride for their cheesemaking traditions is what allows so many different types of cheese to survive when they otherwise might be lost.
Sheep are essential to these traditions. These animals are better suited than cows to the dry and rocky climates of central and southern Italy. Pecora means sheep, which is why many Italian cheeses are called pecorinos, most of which are produced in the regions of Lombardy, Lazio, Sicily, and Sardinia. These animals not only provide milk, but also wool, meat, pelts, and oil that can be turned into soap and candles, making them an economical choice for farmers. Unlike cows, sheep can forage and require little shelter to survive.
Italians are fiercely regional in their identity and the cheeses they produce. A latteria (dairy or creamery) in Tuscany probably won’t be selling any cheeses made in Sicily or Lombardy. A visit to an Italian cheese shop will give you a great glimpse of the cheeses the people in that region or village eat and make. Cheeses are typically named after their place of production or the type of milk or technique used rather than a specific producer.
Cheesemaking and cheese consumption in the country dates back to before the Roman Empire. Marcus Apicius, reputed to be the author of the oldest cookbook in the world, wrote extensively about the place of cheese in the Roman diet and recipes. Cheesy recipes in the Apicius cookbook range from the very simple Mel et Caseum (cheese and honey) to the slightly more complicated Tyrotarica, a dish best described as fish gratin that uses salt fish, chicken livers, and melted cheese. I don’t think I’ll be trying that one anytime soon!
The fact that many recipes in this text – dating back to the 4th or 5th century – call for cheese explains why it is such an important ingredient in Italian cooking. A simple dish such as fava beans and Pecorino Toscano is a perfectly acceptable springtime meal that showcases the flavor of the cheese, while Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Gnudi is a more involved recipe that relies on cheese as the backbone for the gnudi (a pasta related to gnocchi).
I don’t know about you, but after all this talk of Italian cheese, I’m craving a Caprese Salad!
What’s your favorite type of Italian cheese? Have a favorite Italian dish? Do you plan to try any of the recipes from Apicius? Tell us about it in the comments below for a chance to win a copy of our summer issue! Comments must be posted by 11:59 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, July 15, 2014 to be eligible to win. So comment today and stay tuned for next week’s post! And don’t forget to tune in next week when we travel to the Netherlands.Photo Credit: Aging Parmesan Cheese from Crystal Kitchen