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Italian Cheese: Gargantuan Gorgonzola

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!

Meet the new god, same as the old god. It’s said that when Saturn arrived before the Italians, he was a dethroned, pitiful shadow of his former Titan self. But as he introduced the Romans to agriculture and farming, he was restored to his former power, establishing a kingdom of his own among the mortal world. From his might came Gorgonzola, the robust, muscular titan of Italian cheese, overpowering all who stand in its path.

While Gorgonzola is nowhere near as old as Roman myth, it still has a long-respected place in Italian dairy history, making its name as Italy’s oldest blue-veined cheese. Nevertheless, its origin is still legendary. Around the 15th century – on the tail end of the Roman Empire – it’s said that a lustful cow herder neglected his cheese curds halfway through the inoculation process, accidentally leaving them to drain overnight while he chased after his lover. When he returned the next morning, he attempted to hide his mistake by adding the drained curds to the following day’s batch. In a few weeks, he noticed the growth of blue mold on the cheese. However, instead of throwing out the tainted product, he noticed that it had a distinctive spicy and robust flavor, and instead decided to share his inadvertent creation with the world.

Although there is no evidence that supports this story in particular, it is likely that Gorgonzola was an accident – and a wonderful one at that. History  tells us that between the fall and winter seasons, Italian cow herds would migrate from pastures in the Alps down to the lowlands past the Po River Valley. Surely this was a tiring journey, and along the way, herders would stop at small outpost towns to milk their stock and rest for the night. One of these famous waypoints was the Milanese comune (township) Gorgonzola, which – at the turn of the seasons – saw a heavy amount of cattle traffic. With a surplus of milk during migration, locals began crafting their own cheeses and noticed that the tired cows in transit produced dairy with a far higher butterfat content than cows resting at pasture. According to historical record, this milk was turned to stracca (tired) cheese, and it is more than likely that Gorgonzola came about from a failed attempt at making this seasonal product.

The first day's curds are hung and drained overnight in cheesecloth before being added to the second day's milk.

The first day’s curds are hung and drained overnight in cheesecloth before being added to the second day’s milk. / Photo Credit: Baha’i Views / Flitzy Phoebie via Compfight cc

The times have changed, but little has changed in the production of Gorgonzola. The cheese, in all its variations, is DOP protected, meaning that every step of the process is regulated to keep it indigenous to the regions around Gorgonzola, including Novara and Vercelli in Piedmont and Bergamo, Brescia, Como, Cremona, Lodi, Milan, and Pavia in Lombardy. Cows with a high butterfat content are still necessary for the cheese because of its intense flavor profile, and all are grazed on the local grass (called quartirola). Italian cheesemakers prefer to take the raw milk, though it can be made with pasteurized as well, and inoculate it with a starter bacteria culture that includes spores of the mold Penicillium glaucum, which is native to the caves of Valsassina – one of the ancient aging locations for original Gorgonzola.

Just like in the myth of the negligent herder, artisanal makers drain the curds from the first day’s milking overnight and then add them to the next day’s batch, curdling the second day’s milk as well. In the old-world process, this was done to conserve starter resources because there was so much “tired” milk coming through the outpost. Modern high-volume makers will often work from a single day’s milking, though. From here, the curds – uncooked – are packed into a wooden mold and placed on a shelf to age for about four months.

Naturale or piccante gorgonzola is veined with blue mold that resembles parsley leaves in the shape of the paths it follows through the cheese

Quick tip: When quartered, look at the paste of the cheese – the darker it is, the stronger its flavor.

Traditionally, Gorgonzola would have to age for a year or more to develop blue veins. However, nowadays the cheese is pierced with copper or steel needles at the four-week mark, allowing air to seep in and germinate the mold even quicker. It is also salted and flipped every few days, depending on the maker. After the cheese reaches maturity, wheels, weighing about twenty-five pounds each, are quartered and analyzed. If they are erborinato – “parsley-ed,” – describing the mold’s leafy appearance – they are ready to be wrapped and shipped to cheesemongers around the world. 

Interestingly enough, this traditional method of production isn’t the only way that Gorgonzola is made. Wheels aged for four months are called Gorgonzola piccante (sharp), which describes the crumbly inner texture and intense flavor. In the aftermath of World War II, demand arose for a milder, sweeter variation of the cheese, and thus Gorgonzola dolce (sweet) was born. This variation, though mirroring the essential process, is started with a less intense dosage of the starter culture. Additionally, wheels are only aged for three months instead of four, allowing the culture less time to convert the butterfat into fiercely flavored byproducts. At the end of the process, the dolce variant is lighter, sweeter, and far softer than its piccante predecessor, although both are equally tasty and robust in their own rights.

A meltingly creamy wedge of Gorgonzola dolce from Arrigoni Formaggi

Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Arrigoni

Across the Atlantic, both types of Gorgonzola are enjoyed by the wedge and are often paired with fine wines and liquors. The French are especially big thieves fans and pair it with Bordeaux, Zinfandel, and Sauternes, along with various sweet champagnes. For a good Italian match (better than ours in the World Cup), try dolce with an amber Tuscan Vin Santo (holy wine).

Gorgonzola is an easy melting cheese; therefore, we put it on almost everything (seems to be a common theme with Italian cheese). Some favorites include mixing it with risotto or putting it atop pasta or polenta. It is also a key ingredient in a classic: pizza ai quattro formaggi (four-cheese pizza). Stateside, it isn’t consumed much differently, although it certainly makes for a favorite on gourmet burgers. For a DIY adventure, try our Gorgonzola Dolce Pizza with Caramelized Onions & Chives; or, for a nice desert, sample some Spiced Pear and Gorgonzola Pie.

Want to try some of the intense, spicy goodness that is Gorgonzola? Try some of these imported DOP brands (and one not-so-DOP brand):

Photo Credit: Featured image by Migle Seikyte via Compfight cc

Nick D'Errico

Nick D'Errico was raised in an Italian family where he developed an appreciation for good food, a fear of flying bedroom slippers, and a love of cheese. He works as an editorial intern at Culture and currently studies writing and publishing (he wanted to be an engineer, but can't do math). In his spare time, he dons 40 lbs of padding and stands in front of rubber projectiles as a hockey goalie.

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