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The Four Most Famous Cheeses of Italy

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Italy produces some of the finest cheeses in the world.

Italy produces some of the finest cheeses in the world.

Bigger Isn't Always Better

Would it surprise you to learn that the No. 1 producer of cheese in the world is the United States of America? While 4,275,000 tons per year is an amazing number, I have to wonder how much of that production is American cheese and Cheez-Whiz.

My source ( reports:

“Americans don’t export much of the cheese they produce; most of the cheese produced is utilized by the innumerable American fast food joints.”

Well, at least if it stays here we can keep our dignity intact.

Being No. 4 Isn't a Bad Thing

Statistics show that Italy is ranked fourth in amount of cheese produced world-wide with 1,149,000 tons per year (France and Germany are numbers two and three). It's estimated that about 450 types of cheese are made in Italy; of those, 34 have been granted PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status by the European Commission.

So, in the world of cheese production, Italy may lag behind, but . . . consider the amazing cheeses that are created in this 116,000-square mile country. Here are the top cheeses of Italy.

70-pound wheels of Parmagiano-Reggiano cheese

70-pound wheels of Parmagiano-Reggiano cheese

1. Parmagiano-Reggiano

Parmesan cheese is manufactured in many countries (most certainly in the U.S.). However, there is only one true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Originally they were two similar cheeses, made in adjoining provinces (Parma and Reggio); both made from the milk of the same breeds of cow, fed by the same grasses on the same soils, and sharing the same climate.

Historians tell us that these two hard cheeses were developed eight centuries ago by monks living in the Enza River Valley—a geographic dividing line between the regions of Parma and Reggio. In 1934 the farmers of these two adjoining regions banded together and formed what is the oldest European organization—the Consorzio del Grana Topico. The purpose of the organization was to standardize the production of their cheeses and protect (trademark) the product. Twenty years later the consortium was renamed to reflect the origin of their cheese—Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano. Today that name is displayed on every wheel of cheese produced in this area.

The cows that produce the milk for Parmigiano-Reggiano are pasture-grazed; therefore cheese production in limited to mid-April to mid-November. By law, all Parmigiano-Reggiano must be aged at least 14 months before being sold. The finest quality cheese available is aged three years and is called stravecchio. These cheeses have a deep straw color and develop delicious little protein crystals which crunch and explode with flavor when bitten.

How to Use Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese

  • As part of a cheese course
  • As a garnish on soups, salads, pasta, or poultry
  • As a part of a filling for pasta or vegetable pies
Wedge of Pecorino-Romano cheese

Wedge of Pecorino-Romano cheese

2. Pecorino-Romano Cheese

To a traveler in Italy, there is nothing more lovely than a rolling landscape dotted olive trees; perhaps there are a few cypresses in the distance or the ruins of an ancient abandoned farmhouse, and in the foreground sheep grazing in lush green meadows. To the experienced cheese lover, the sight of those sheep can mean only one thing—Pecorino Romano.

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Unlike its indistinguishable cousin Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano is made from 100 percent sheep’s milk. As the name might suggest, Pecorino Romano dates back to the Roman era and was even mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his writings. The manufacture of this cheese is carefully regulated by the European Union, and under Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) it can be produced only on the islands of Sardinia, Lazio, and the Tuscan province of Grossetto.

On the label of any pecorino, you should be able to read “100 percent latte di pecora” which means that it is made from sheep’s milk.

Dry-salted by hand, the massive 60-pound wheels of cheese are aged from eight to 12 months. Because of its sharp taste and salty flavor, Pecorino Romano is best used as a grated cheese over pasta, or in soups or salads; it is a bit too salty to be eaten by itself as a cheese course.

How to Use Pecorino-Romano Cheese

  • As a garnish on risotto
  • On top of crostini
  • On a simple salad with arugula and lemon zest
  • As an ingredient in meatballs or meatloaf
  • As a replacement for other salty cheeses, such as feta
Gorgonzola with a perfectly ripe bosc pear

Gorgonzola with a perfectly ripe bosc pear

3. Gorgonzola

Gorgonzola is one of the world's oldest blue-veined cheeses, originating around 847 A.D. from a town of the same name just east of Milan in the northern region of Lombardy. Lombardy, on the alpine border with Switzerland, is in the northern-most part of Italy. It is Italy's leading agricultural area and the Alps provide excellent grazing for cows. Whole cow’s milk is used to prepare Gorgonzola.

The origin of Gorgonzola is subject of much debate and the center of many fables and myths. It is said that years ago, a young man in Italy, a cheese apprentice, was distracted by love, and left his cheese curds unattended overnight. To hide his oversight, the next morning he mixed them with fresh curds, but a few weeks later noticed that the batch was turning blue. The mistake could no longer be hidden, but it proved to be a happy accident, and Gorgonzola was born . . . or something like that. (Oddly enough, the French have a similar story for the creation of Roquefort.)

There is another myth about Gorgonzola (or any blue cheese, for that matter) which came to light in the 20th century. A quick Google search will reveal that the “blue” of blue cheese is from the “injection of a penicillin bacteria” into the cheese. Penicillin has no part in the process, nothing is injected into the cheese, and the blue is a fungus, not a bacteria.

Gorgonzola cheese has crumbly and soft texture with nutty aroma. It can have a mild to sharp taste depending on its age. Gorgonzola Dolce (also called Sweet Gorgonzola) is younger, creamy, and aged no more than three months. And then there is Gorgonzola Piccante (also called Gorgonzola Naturale). This cheese is aged longer, is more firm and has obvious blue veins.

How to Use Gorgonzola Cheese

  • As a garnish on soup or salad
  • In a cream sauce for pasta
  • To top a grilled beef steak or beef hamburger
Asiago cheese and water crackers

Asiago cheese and water crackers

4. Asiago

Once upon a time Asiago cheese was made from sheep’s milk in the alpine area of the town of Asiago in the Veneto region. Five hundred years later, sheep were replaced by cows. Nothing much has changed since that time.

Asiago cheese has a PDO designation. The production area is strictly defined: it starts from the meadows of the Po Valley and finishes in the Alpine pastures between the Asiago Plateau and the Trentino's highlands. The officially designated area where the milk is collected and Asiago DOP cheese is produced, extends to four provinces in the north-east of Italy: the entire area of Vicenza and Trento and part of the provinces of Padua and Treviso.

There are two distinct types of Asiago cheese—Asiago d’Allevo is firm, grainy, made from whole milk; it is aged for up to five months, and has a sharp, nutty flavor. Asiago Pressato, made from part-skim milk, is much milder. Some find it rather bland and uninteresting.

How to Use Asiago Cheese

  • Asiago d'Allevo
    • Grated on pasta
    • As a garnish on soup or salad
    • By itself with crackers or as part of a cheese course
  • Asiago Pressato
    • In a cheese sauce
    • In a hot sandwich in which melting is important

© 2015 Linda Lum

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