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Digital Subscriptions > Italia! > Sep-18 > Vero Italiano FORMAGGIO

Vero Italiano FORMAGGIO

For the latest instalment in Mario Matassa’s series uncovering the secrets of Italian food, we turn to the subject of cheese. There are hundreds of varieties to discover, but we will begin with fontina, ricotta, parmesan, pecorino and mascarpone.

According to my doctor, it’s okay for me to eat a little cheese every day – just as long as I always wash it down with red wine. He also recommends parmesan for weaning infants because it’s so easily digestible and such a rich source of calcium. Teething infants soothe their gums on chunks of parmesan, and their grandmothers sing to them as they feed them homemade broth with grated parmesan.

The national love affair with cheese knows no bounds – it’s one of the few things Italians cannot do without. I guess that’s why astronauts Maurizio Cheli and Umberto Guidoni felt compelled to smuggle a few wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano aboard the Space Shuttle. It was subsequently discovered that this is one of the few products that remains intact at zero gravity. It has since become authorised as the only non-processed food in the diet of the International Space Station.

Many years ago, nearly every town in Italy had its own latteria where fresh cheese would be sold daily, in the same way as bread. It never came with any wrapping, and seldom even had a name. Nostrano (local), fresco (fresh) or stagionato (aged) were the only appellations likely to be applied. Sadly, these shops have all but disappeared and today you often have to venture a little further afield for something special. Nowadays, when I need a piece of parmesan, I drive down the road to the province of Parma. When I fancy a piece of goat’s cheese, I’ll take to a mountain track; word of mouth guides me to the source.

Whatever you are looking for, you can find it. Artisan producers still abound in Italy, though few advertise. Their shop tends to be their front living room, which invariably always smells of cheese. Stop at any bar in the province and ask for recommendations. Or, alternatively, just follow the animals. Chances are, if you see a herd of goats or sheep, someone nearby is going to be producing cheese.

A few years ago a young couple from Puglia opened a cheese shop just a ten-minute walk from my home. For us it was just like winning the lottery. The shop stocks 250-300g balls of fresh buffalo mozzarella – something you rarely see outside the southern regions, and something to which I am quite partial. I ate insalata caprese for three nights in a row the week they opened. Like everything food-related in Italy, geography is the key to culinary happiness. Every year, die-hard cheese aficionados make the pilgrimage to Cuneo in Piedmont or Bergamo in Lombardy, the de facto cheese capitals of Italy. There, the challenge is to eat your way through the menu of cheese in just a few days. It’s a serious challenge and only the truly devoted will succeed. Piedmont and Lombardy produce no fewer than 122 and 107 (respectively) varieties of (mostly) cow’s milk cheese. So you can see why anyone who makes it to the finish line deserves respect.

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About Italia!

The Dolomites are a popular summer retreat for many Italians. We’ll show you how walking takes precedence over the winter activities we usually associate with this beautiful region. We also visit the secret green spaces of Italy’s cities, perfect oases if you are taking a summer city break. And we visit Matera, a city once known as ‘the shame of Italy’ but now set to become the European Capital of Culture.