A journey into excellence! Let’s discover together the most famous types of Italian cheese.
The final touch on a pasta dish with tomato sauce: cheese! An ingredient that, when added, always improves the recipe. Sometimes it is the star, sometimes it acts as an accompaniment, and sometimes you regret not having added it.
In its countless shapes and textures, cheese is the result of skilful milk processing that respects the ancient knowledge handed down by cheese-makers over time. The first documented historical sources date the practice of cheesemaking to the 3rd millennium B.C. by the Sumerians in the Fertile Crescent. Many other peoples such as the Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, but also the peoples of northern Europe, have made their living from it over time.
From mountain pastures to large cheese factories, cheese is an institution that has evolved at a galloping pace. Its worldwide production exceeds that of coffee, chocolate and tea combined, also considering the great variety of cheese types, which number more than 2000!
Among the best known in the world, we find French Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, Swiss Emmentaler, British Cheddar and Stilton or Greek Feta.
And without too much surprise, the most widely used cheese in the world is the Mozzarella. Parmigiano Reggiano, Asiago and Gorgonzola are among the most famous and appreciated ones. Like architectural monuments, they are symbols of their regions and cities of origin.
The country that stands out in terms of production volume and types of cheese is neighbouring France, with more than 400 varieties (excluding local and homemade production). Italy reaches 487 types of cheese, but our must is always quality. As of 2015, there are 48 PDO cheeses (under EU protection), imposing the supremacy over France, which is stuck at 45.
Each city or town specialises in the production of certain types of cheese, using traditional techniques and processing. It is the link with the territory that determines the essence of each cheese: the climate, the morphology, the farms that supply the raw material. There are so many factors that contribute to the characterisation of the different types of cheese, so much so that we can classify them according to the milk used, the paste, the temperature, the manufacturing process, the rind and the maturing process. This is how the concept of excellence is rooted in Italian “savoir faire“.
We will discover together some of the best Italian cheeses, delving into the immense universe behind this magical art. It dominates the gastronomic scenario, appearing among the appetisers, during an aperitif or as a real main course.
Diversity and Character in Different Cheeses
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What distinguishes one cheese from another? There are many differences and most of them are due to the fact that it is an extremely complex food.
From a technological point of view, cheese is the by-product of the rennet or acid coagulation of milk. Rennet contains enzymes that act on milk proteins: it can be of animal or vegetable origin. Crucial to the production of cheese are the ferments, both natural and artificial, that assist in the process of coagulation and separation of the whey.
What kind of milk are we talking about? Cow, buffalo, sheep, goat or mixed milk can be used. Each milk has got a different composition in terms of fats, proteins, sugars and water. From this variability come specific classifications: based on fat content, we distinguish fat cheeses from semi-fat and low-fat cheeses.
The whole technological process of cheese making is not standard. Milk may be heated beforehand, then pasteurised. Some cheeses are made with raw milk. The curd process is extremely variable: it can be cooked, semi-cooked or raw and can be spun, as in the case of Mozzarella, or pressed as in Asiago pressato.
The rind may have a layer of mould, usually Penicillium: this is called washed rind (edible or not) and bloom. When the mould mycelia are an integral part of the cheese, we speak of blue-veined cheese, such as Gorgonzola.
Depending on the water content retained, there are soft, semi-hard and hard cheeses. This also depends on the ripening time, i.e. the time during which the cheese is ripened and then consumed. According to this parameter, fresh cheeses are distinguished from short, medium and long ripened cheeses.
A small taste of Italian cheese
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The universe of cheeses is studded with excellence that needs protection.
Within the European Community, according to the area of origin of the milk, the place of production of the cheese and obviously the cheese making techniques, typical products are awarded Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.), Protected Geographical Indication (P.G.I.) and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (T.S.G.). In Italy, since 2000, the Ministry of Agriculture has also prepared the national list of traditional agri-food products (P.A.T) in order to safeguard and enhance niche preparations.
Here, you will find a list of Italian cheeses to take note of!
This cheese is produced in the plateau of the same name, between Vicenza and Trentino Alto Adige. In ancient times, it was made from sheep’s milk and matured for at least six months, in what was called “Asiago d’allevo“. Later, a shorter ripening period was passed thanks to the characteristic pressing, which today gives us the soft PDO-certified Asiago Pressato.
Also known as the fat cheese of Valtellina, it is a PDO Alpine cheese whose origins can be traced back to the Celts. With a semi-hard cooked paste, it is mainly produced with cow’s milk and is matured for at least 70 days, moving from the alpine dairies in the highlands to the valley floor.
Made from pasteurised buffalo milk only, this blue-veined cheese has characteristic blue veins due to Penicillium Roqueforti moulds, which give it hints of undergrowth and mushrooms. As the ripening time is extended, the flavour intensifies, becoming pungent yet sublime!
This is a stretched curd cheese widespread throughout central and southern Italy, which is made from cow’s milk with only rennet added. Its characteristic shape includes a bottleneck that divides it into two non-symmetrical parts. The origin of its name seems to derive from the method of drying, which involves placing the moulds on beams (although other sources attribute the name to a term of Jewish derivation). There are many known varieties: the caciocavallo Podolico, made only with milk from the Podolica breed of cow, is one of the most expensive cheeses in the world, at 70 euros per kg. There is also caciocavallo Silano, from Agnone, from Castelfranco, from Godrano, Supino, Matese or Abruzzese caciocavallo.
CASCIOTTA OF URBINO
Celebrated by Michelangelo himself, it is a semi-hard cheese made from mixed sheep and cow’s milk. Originally from the Pesaro and Urbino area, it is an excellent PDO cheese with a classic cylindrical shape.
This Piedmontese blue-veined cheese, with a semi-hard paste, is made from cow’s milk (sometimes also mixed goat’s and sheep’s milk). It is a Slow food presidium for its production in mountain dairies, at altitudes above 1000 metres. It is delicious when melted and prepared as a sauce for potato gnocchi, typical of Piedmont.
Or Casu Frazigu, it is one of the most “special” preparations discussed here. This is a Sardinian cheese, made from goat’s milk and flavoured with the help of the larvae of the cheese fly, which hatch their eggs inside the cheese, giving it an extremely strong flavour. There are also “casu puntu” from Salento and “salterello“ in Friuli, which undergo the same treatment with the cheese fly.
The sweet rush baskets that shape this cheese are responsible for its distinctive name. Made from raw sheep’s milk, it is an excellent hard cheese that has its roots between the Apennines (where we find Canestrato di Castel del Monte) and the Tavoliere delle Puglie.
Delightful and uniquely prepared, this typical Slow Food cheese from Lazio carries with it the ancient knowledge of the Romans, who performed coagulation using vegetable rennet extracted from the flower of the wild thistle. You will appreciate its soft texture, which makes it an excellent bread ally!
Strongly linked to its territory, Fontina is like a family member to the Aosta Valley inhabitants. The milk is strictly from cows of the Valdostana breed, processed whole and raw. It is a semi-hard cheese with a washed rind, with characteristic aromatic notes conferred by the scents of the mountain pastures where it is produced.
One of the most famous Italian cheeses in the world, Gorgonzola is unmistakable: its greenish streaks, soft texture, pungent smell and strong flavour emphasise its uniqueness. Named after its city of origin, Gorgonzola seems to have originated from the mistake of a young man who forgot fresh curd in a damp cellar and tried to make up for it the next morning by adding new curd. The moulds of Penicillium Roqueforti allow it to ripen quickly, both in its sweet and spicy versions. They are often enjoyed with a good polenta concia.
This is a stretched curd cheese known all over the world and produced in many regions of Southern Italy. Made from cow’s milk and with a typical cylindrical shape, it can be sweet, spicy or smoked. There is a southern variant, Provolone del Monaco, which originates in the Naples area.
BURRATA DI ANDRIA
A treasure chest of PGI treasures made by the skilled cheesemakers of Andria, in Apulia. Burrata is a casing of stretched curd made from cow’s milk, which encloses cream and stracciatella (stringy cheese) inside. On pizza it is a delicacy!
Typical of Friuli Venezia Giulia and Veneto, it is a PDO cheese that owes its name to the Montasio plateau, an area of production since the Middle Ages. It is a yellow-ripened cheese that, depending on its ageing time, is distinguished into fresh, medium and extra-mature, varying in the flavour and aromas it releases. The pairing with polenta is a must.
In its huge round shapes, Grana Padano is a hard cheese typical of northern regions such as Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont and also Emilia Romagna. Its hard paste originates from long ripening times, ranging from a minimum of 9 months to a maximum of 20 months in the Grana Padano PDO Riserva. Together with Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino, it is among the most widely consumed types of cheese in Italy and is the basis for many preparations.
One of the most exported cheeses in the world, Parmigiano Reggiano was created in the Middle Ages and today is produced between Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena. Outside the borders of Italy, you can often find yourself reading the words Parmesan on menus. Unfortunately, more often than not, it has nothing to do with our beloved Parmigiano Reggiano. Produced all year round and with different maturation times, we find it young, mature, old and even extra-mature when maturation exceeds 30 months.
This is another great traditional classic cheese. It is produced in different areas of Italy, from where the Pecorino Romano, Siciliano and Sardo, among the most famous, as well as the Pecorino Toscano or the Monte Poro are derived. It is a sheep’s milk cheese with many ripening degrees: fresh, primo sale, semi-mature or mature. In all its versions, it is excellent both as a table cheese and as an accompaniment for sauces and more elaborate recipes.
It is the stretched curd cheese par excellence! Famous all over the world, thanks also to its marriage with pizza, mozzarella is the result of a double process where the paste is not put directly into seasoning but undergoes a spinning process that makes it soft and malleable. Subsequently, the classic “mozzatura” gives it its typical shape, which can vary from the most common bocconcini to trecce.
Production from exclusive buffalo milk gives rise to the mozzarella di Bufala Campana PDO, a very fresh food that must be consumed in the short term.
On pizza, Fiordilatte (made from cow’s milk) is more common. It is also ideal for stuffing and filling as it contains a lower water and fat content than its table variant.
FORMAGGIO DI FOSSA
A unique cheese due to its special ripening inside oval “pits” dug into the rock or tuff in the areas of Sogliano al Rubicone, Talamello or Roncofreddo (but also in Umbria and Tuscany). The re-fermentation that takes place in this environment gives it an intense aroma, perfect in contrast with honey or jams. It is produced from cow’s or sheep’s milk and its texture is crumbly, perfect in flakes on pasta!
Confused with caciocavallo, it is probably the oldest Sicilian cheese. Produced in the Ragusa area, it is a semi-hard cheese made from the milk of the Modicana cow, fed with wild herbs that give that cheese its typical aromatic qualities. Its processing follows the rules of the PDO specification that start from an ancient tradition: spinning takes place in copper containers and its parallelepiped shape comes from the containers (called “Mastreddi“) where it is placed.
Produced in the province of Cuneo, this semi-hard cheese is perfect for tasting in mountain pastures, in full purity. Made from cow’s milk with the addition of sheep’s and goat’s milk, it follows a medium maturing process, which if prolonged, intensifies its flavour.
And it’s immediately Piadina Romagnola! This cheese widespread in Emilia is characterised by its extremely soft and creamy texture. It is an uncooked cheese with a sweet-sour flavour, perfect in combination with raw ham or slightly bitter vegetables such as rocket.
A casket of semi-hard stretched curd cheese with a “capa mozza“. It is a traditional cheese of the central southern regions, also offered in smoked and stuffed versions (in Basilicata, with sausage). The raw material is cow’s milk, but in Campania, between Naples, Caserta and Salerno, buffalo milk is also used. Beloved in the kitchen for its versatility, from grilled to a precious condiment for flans.
For the people of Lombardy, “strachin” is among the Traditional Agri-food Products not only from Lombardy but also from Tuscany. Being a soft, uncooked cheese with a thin, tender rind, it is one of the most popular spreadable cheeses in Italy. It matures between 20 and 60 days, except for Crescenza, which is eaten very fresh.
This cheese from Bergamo has got a soft consistency and a characteristic orange-red rind. The bacteria and moulds present on the rind implement a ripening process that proceeds from the outside to the inside, assisted by specific pH, temperature and humidity conditions.
Produced in the Langhe, Brescia and Valsassina areas, robiola is a soft, short-ripened cheese with a distinctive reddish rind. In fact, it seems that the origin of the name can be traced back to Robbia, a plant from which the red pigment is obtained.
VASTEDDA FROM THE BELICE VALLEY
As the only pasta filata sheep’s cheese, it is produced in the torrid Sicilian summers from the raw whole milk of the Valle del Belice breed of sheep, following a natural acidic fermentation process. It is eaten fresh and takes the classic ovoid shape, referred to as “vastedda” in the local dialect. It is a PDO cheese whose production is permitted in only 17 Sicilian municipalities.
It deserves to be included in this list despite the fact that it is not a cheese but a dairy product, because it is derived from the whey that separates from the curd. The milk used can be cow’s, sheep’s, goat’s or buffalo milk. The whey is cooked again (recocta, in fact) causing this snow-white, sweet-tasting product to rise to the surface. It is mainly produced in the central south in its various types: fresh, strong, dry, baked, smoked, di fuscella. The sweet version plays a leading role in beloved Sicilian pastries.
It is the king of tiramisu, derived from the acid processing of cream in the Lodigiano area. This cream inherits the slightly sour taste that makes it suitable for sweet preparations
(try it on panettone), but beware of the calories and fat it contains!
Nutritional facts about cheese
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Generally speaking, cheeses are very energetic (100 g of product provide about 300 kcal) and have a good content of proteins with a high biological value. Very important elements for our diet are retained in the curd, including calcium, phosphates and zinc, strengthening bones and teeth as well as vitamins A, B and D.
For pregnant women, attention should be paid to unpasteurised cheeses made from raw milk, soft cheeses such as brie or taleggio because they are not made from pasteurised milk, and finally blue cheeses, whose moulds could hide the bacteria responsible for listeriosis.
These cheeses can still be eaten after cooking at high temperatures, perhaps on a pizza! For those who do not want to take the risk, they can still opt for fresh unfermented, pasteurised or cooked, and finally hard or semi-hard cheeses such as fontina or asiago and mature cheeses.
The latter also appear on the tables of those who are intolerant to lactose, the main milk sugar that is transferred to whey. This is why ricotta, made from whey, is banned from the diet of the intolerant, while Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano are to be considered naturally lactose-free, and with them also Gorgonzola PDO and Taleggio PDO.
Some people keep their distance because of the infamous cholesterol level: in these cases, lower-fat cheeses come to the rescue, such as mozzarella, fior di latte and ricotta (cow’s and sheep’s milk), especially in their light versions. On the other hand, the fattiest cheeses are caciocavallo, mascarpone, emmenthal and pecorino.
Taste the most popular Italian cheeses with us!
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In Italy you will have the opportunity to learn the secrets of Italian cheese, coming into direct contact with large and small producers.
On a weekend immersed in nature between the Alps and the Apennines, you can take the opportunity to visit and taste fresh cheese made in the malga. In the Po Valley, you can visit large factories and observe the wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano up close.
You can also recreate the magic of cheese making through cooking classes, learning how to make home-made ricotta and cheese. And if you are on holiday or simply want a food experience, you can opt for a farmhouse where cheese is often paired with wine or honey.
You just have to savour the types of Italian cheese you like best! Enjoy your meal