In many ways, cheese is the heart of Italian cuisine. Pasta gives a dish its body, herbs and seasonings add some flavor, but it is the cheese that makes up the character of a dish. A cheese might be described in many ways. The depth of flavor, the texture, and how it pairs with other ingredients determine how a cheese is used.
To choose the perfect cheese for your dish, you have to understand the factors that make a cheese what is is. The type of milk used, where it is produced, and the production process combine to turn fairly similar batches of milk into some very different cheeses.
More Than Just Cows
In the United States, most people tend to think of milk, cheese, and other dairy products in terms of cows. For a variety of reasons, most dairy products here have been produced using cow milk. In Italian cuisine, however, many cheeses are made from goat milk, sheep milk, and even water buffalo milk. The flavor and fattiness of milks vary, so they are best suited to different types of cheese.
Location, Location, Location
Location matters in more than just real estate. The milk is affected by the animal’s diet. Each region in Italy features a unique climate and plant life that creates a regional flavor in dairy. The importance of region has long been recognized in the wine industry. Italy has long understood the importance of regional cheeses – more than two dozen cheeses are now given the “DOP” label, which means that their name signifies a specific region and can’t be used to describe cheese made somewhere else.
Understanding the Details
The production process adds it own layer of differences. The texture of a cheese, the most important factor in many dishes, depends largely on the water content. Draining the water makes it drier and harder. For many dishes, you may want a soft or runny cheese like a Crescenza, but other times you need a something dry and crumbly that grates well, like a Grana Padano. The aging process is also important. Aging helps to dry out a cheese and make it harder. The longer a cheese ages, the sharper and saltier it will be. Additives such as herbs or smoke create a unique flavor that can make a simple cheese into something much more complex. The time of year that a cheese is created also has an effect. Summer cheeses are often the most flavorful, because they are enjoying a diet of fresh grass and wild herbs. Winter cheeses are often milder because the animals are eating dry fodder.
Whether you want a cheese that can stand alone as an appetizer or cheese course, or something that will harmonize with other ingredients, there are many high quality Italian cheeses to enjoy. Most of us are quite familiar with Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola, and Mozzarella. However, maybe it is time to branch out and get to know other delicious varieties, such as Grana Padano, Fontina, Taleggio, Pecorino, and Trugole.
As one of the premier Italian food distributors in the Boston metro area, Casa Foods offers a selection of some of the best quality Italian cheeses that you can buy. If you are looking for authentic Italian ingredients, call us at 978 -777-1619 and let us take care of you.