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Italian Cheese: Magical Mascarpone

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 glass of vino and mangiare!

You’ve just sat down to a delicious slice of tiramisu. Bittersweet shavings of dark chocolate lie atop a dusting of cocoa powder, meanwhile layers of Italian savoiardi (ladyfingers) soak up full-bodied Italian roast coffee and fine brandy underneath. You ease your fork through the soft desert, lift a bite-sized piece to your mouth, and prepare to savor the rich, buttery goodness of this modern Venetian classic. Then it hits you. It’s so dry! you think, and start coughing as the cocoa powder and sponge cake catches in your throat. Since when did tiramisu become a choking hazard?

This is life without mascarpone. Or, rather, what it would taste like; tiramisu is more than half mascarpone, so you’d probably notice something missing long before that first bite even reached your mouth. Still, we owe a lot to this creamy, buttery product. In the Italian dessert world – and indeed in Italian cuisine in general – mascarpone is one of the most frequently used bases, from tiramisu to tarts and cream cakes to cheesecakes, and even in spaghetti too (although we pretty much eat everything with spaghetti). Indeed, it could be considered Italians’ favorite cream cheese – if it were a cheese at all.

Madonna Santa! You mean we’re actually talking about something that isn’t cheeseSisignore! While it’s true that mascarpone isn’t technically a cheese made from curds, it shares more similarities with our favorite food than your average dairy product. Perhaps the biggest reason we consider it a cheese is that the milk is still acidified and drained of excess whey. It’s also used more like a cheese than as a yogurt, which it resembles save for the lack of bacterial cultures. Sure, you can mix yogurt into various dishes, and you can certainly eat it on its own, but mascarpone is suited for a much wider range of things, including spreads, salads, and sandwiches, just to name a few. Many Italian makers also produce it from the same milk that’s in Parmigiano Reggiano, removing yet another degree of separation. Still not convinced? Che peccato per te (too bad for you); in Italian culture, it’s not so much about what is and what isn’t as much as it’s about what tastes good.

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Mascarpone is made from curdled cream rather than milk and contains no starter culture, making it more of a cream product than an actual cheese. / Photo Credit: Lady Madonna via Compfight cc

So how does this yogurt-like cheesy product come about? As it turns out, next to mozzarella and ricotta, mascarpone is one of the easiest cheeses to make! The process begins with fresh cow’s milk, brought over in the mornings right after milking. The liquid is allowed to sit undisturbed until all the cream floats to the top. This cream is then skimmed off and put into a metal container, and the rest of the milk becomes – well, it becomes milk, of course. After separation, the skimmed cream is heated to 185 degrees Fahrenheit and is acidified with tartaric acid, an all-natural derivative of the tamarind tree (an import native to Africa) and of grapes (Italians sure do love their wine!). About ten minutes later, once the acid has thoroughly curdled the cream, the contents are poured through a cheesecloth and left to sit for twenty-four hours – until the whey has drained and the cheese has a thick, dense consistency. Salt is mixed in right after draining, and then the cheese immediately goes to sale; mascarpone is never aged because the product, without bacteria or enzymes, would go sour – most certainly not good eats.

In the esteemed, ancient empire of Italian cheeses, mascarpone is one of the youngest citizens. That’s still not saying much; at their best estimate, cheese anthropologists date our buttery friend back to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, originating – like many other Italian cheeses – in the Lombardy region. That geographic placement is pivotal for flavor, as it is with many other regional products. Remember how some mascarpone is made with the same milk as Parmigiano Reggiano? Well, the king of all Italian cheese comes from that same area – between Milan and Mantova, and south into Emilia-Romagna. In these regions, the cows graze on a special diet of grasses, hay, herbs, and flowers, giving both Parmigiano and mascarpone a similar milky base flavor. Beyond this, the milk that’s left over from skimming off mascarpone cream can be curdled for the Parmigiano-making process – two-for-one cheese!

As for the more exotic ingredient, tartaric acid, geography comes into play all the same, too. Though trade in the 1600s was booming in the major European cities, one of which was Milan, it’s likely that tamarinds weren’t the original source of tartaric acid as they were too hard to get and far too expensive for the average dairy farmer. However, besides being one of the prime cheese regions in Italy, Lombardy is also at the heart of wine country, producing, among others, Nebbiolo, Verdicchio, and an Italian chardonnay. Tartaric acid is present in all of these wines and forms as little white crystals on the bottom of the bottle or cork. Remove them and you have your curdling agent for mascarpone, all-natural and Italian-made!

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Mascarpone can be refrigerated while still draining off the excess whey. This will change the texture, though, as more time in the fridge will cause the cheese to retain moisture, making for a softer product. / Photo Credit: kulinarno via Compfight cc

It’s only fitting, then, that Lombardy receives some geographical recognition for its role in mascarpone. Unfortunately for the region, mascarpone is ineligible for D.O.P. cheese status because, according to procedure, it’s not formally a cheese. At this point, it’s also too-widely made to be restricted to Lombardy, a downfall of its simplicity. But despite being snubbed by the European Union, the Italian government has given mascarpone the recognition it deserves, applying a Prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale (P.A.T.) stamp in the D.O.P.’s place. This protection recognizes mascarpone as a traditional agricultural food product of Lombardy, and while it can be freely made and labeled around the world, no other place can lay claim to its origin. That’s right, America; we had it first!

Even so, mascarpone is still a fresh, unpreserved cheese with 60 to 75 percent butterfat content, and as such it’s incredibly difficult to get a decent imported version stateside. Because of their size and worldwide presence, Italian producer and exporter Galbani makes a version available in some major cities, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find it beyond any major shipping hub. Thus, we’re left with the American equivalents – some of which are not half bad. Vermont Creamery has a well-made option, though it tends to be a bit sweeter than its foreign cousin. If you’re looking for small-scale and homemade and live in the Northeast, look no further than Fiore di Nonno in Somerville, MA, where Lourdes Smith stuffs her handmade burrata with her own rich mascarpone. Che bello formaggio!

Looking for some more tips on how to use mascarpone? Check out this informative article, or give this DIY Mascarpone recipe a shot! And don’t forget – you can’t have tiramisu (and especially not tiramisu cheesecake or ice cream, I might add) without mascarpone.

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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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