The ultimate Italian washed-rind, Taleggio has inspired gooey, orange-hued imitations aplenty since its invention somewhere around the ninth century. But you can only find makers of the original in regions surrounding the Val Taleggio, the cheese's eponymous valley in mountainous Northern Italy.
Taleggio was originally made only during certain months of the year, as a way to utilize excess milk as the cows made their seasonal trip to and from summer mountain pastures. While high-mountain cheeses tended to be large and firm, Taleggio was produced at lower points on the migration trail, where the temperature is slightly warmer (72 to 77°F) and the air is far more humid (90%)—much more conducive to the growth of mold on the rind. At that point the cows, sufficiently tired from their seasonal hike, would produce milk with a much higher butterfat content than that from cattle resting at pasture. While nowadays the cheese is mass-produced year-round with cows that don’t migrate, rustic artisanal cheesemakers will still follow the old method to a tee.
To make the cheese, whole cow’s milk is heated to between 86 and 97°F, and animal rennet is added as a coagulant. Alternatively, some makers will introduce milk that’s already fermented, an ancient process that can be repeated almost indefinitely and save one from ever having to buy new starter cultures. After 15 to 20 minutes, the curds are cut, and then cut again after another ten minutes of rest. Whey is drained over a metal table, on which the curds are molded into their signature squares. Salt is applied both by hand and by way of a brine; then, the squares are transferred over to wooden shelves for aging.
The cheese is turned at regular intervals for the first eighteen hours, allowing the salt to distribute and drying the rind. For the next forty days, the entire aging process, makers will regularly scrub the rind with a salt solution to spread good bacteria, scrub off excess, and prevent mold overgrowth, since too much can make the cheese bitter and disgusting. This is what reveals the cheese’s characteristic terracotta hue, as the rind is mainly composed of cannibal bacteria feeding off of their predecessors, flavoring the paste, and giving Taleggio its distinctive pungent aroma.
Despite the strongly aromatic washed rind, flavors are mild and buttery when young, developing a fuller, tangier flavor with prolonged maturing. The body of the cheese is soft, with only a few eyes (holes), and is a pale, straw-white color that becomes darker under the rind as the cheese matures.
For the purest taste of Taleggio’s gustatory mosaic, try spreading some of the paste on a hunk of rustic bread; the rich, meaty primary flavor creates a super-savory pairing, making the subdued fruitiness of the cheese far more noticeable, but also far less intense. Inversely, if you pair Taleggio with sweet grapes, currants, pignoli (pine nuts), or a sweet wine like a red Italian Nebbiolo, the cheese becomes super-sweet, great for dessert or an early-morning breakfast.