Sunday, September 29, 2013

On Location: Caseificio San Paolo Parmigiano-Reggiano

A visit to northern Italy wouldn't be complete without seeing the production of Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of Italian cheeses. This week, we visited Caseificio San Paolo, a cooperative made up of 13 dairy farmers in the province of Modena. Twelve of the farmers milk about 70 cows, while one milks about 1,000 cows. All house their animals in freestall barns and feed them hay and grains.

Two men: lead Cheesemaker Gimmi Ambrogi, who continually had an unlit cigarette perched perilously on his lips, and dairy farmer Fabrizio Consoli, who milks 70 Friesians, gave us a tour of their cheese plant, where 18 small copper vats are each used to produce two wheels of raw milk, 83-pound wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano starting each week day at 6:30 a.m.

Whole milk from the delivery of morning milk is added to part-skim milk from the previous evening, made by holding the delivery of evening milk in large shallow stainless steel tables to allow the cream to separate. Natural whey culture is added, and the milk is heated. Calf rennet is then added, and the mixture is left to curdle for 10 to 12 minutes. Cheesemakers then use a special circular cheese knife to cut the curd into small pieces, and heat the mass again.

After being left to settle for about 45 minutes, the curd is scooped up in a piece of cloth and divided in two. Because we arrived a little late, Ambrogi demonstrated the technique for us. The curd is then placed in plastic molds and flipped every two hours.

The next day, the cheese is put into a stainless steel forms that are tightened with a spring-powered latch. After two days, the latch is released and a long plastic belt imprinted with the Parmigiano-Reggiano name, the plant number, and month and year of production is put around the cheese and the metal form is latched tight again.

After three days, each wheel is put into brine to absorb salt for 20 days. The brine is changed every 3-4 months by draining half the liquid from each tub and adding new saltwater. Wheels are rotated about 1/8 turn each day so that all part of the wheel gets soaked. On the day we visited, about 1,200 wheels were soaking in brine.

After brining, the wheels are moved to aging rooms in the plant for 12 months, where each is placed on wooden shelves. Each cheese and shelf is cleaned robotically every seven days, and the cheese is also flipped at that time.

At one year of age, a master grader from the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano inspects each and every wheel of cheese, using a hammer to tap the wheel at various locations, listening for any defect cracks in the wheel. The cheeses that pass are then heat branded on the rind with the Consorzio's logo. Failed wheels are marked with lines or crosses and are generally sold for grating.

Caseificio San Paolo is currently aging 40,000 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The cooperative owns several aging warehouses in the Emilia-Romagna region.

After the tour, we were lucky enough to enjoy a tasting right of wheels that were 18-, 24- and 36-months of age. Ambrogi even sprinkled the 36-month with balsamic vinegar for us, which was amazing.

Many thanks to all the folks at Caseificio San Paolo for your hospitality and cheese tasting!

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

On Location: Making Taleggio & Strachitunt in Vedeseta, Italy

Taleggio is one of those cheeses you either hate or love. With its soft, sticky texture, stinky aroma and washed-rind flavor, I am firmly in the love, love, love category. And seeing it produced in an authentic alpine dairy was high on my to-do list while in Italy this week.

Simona, my tour guide from Cellar Tours, did not disappoint. She put 22 of us on a bus and we proceeded to motor up the steep, windy roads of the Valtaleggio valley in the Orobian Pre-Alps. Two hours later, a little car-sick, but in awe of the alpine view, we arrived in the remote village of Vedeseta, home to cheesemaker Arturo Locatelli's artisan cheese plant, where he was just finishing up that day's production of a cheese I had never heard of: Strachitunt.

Simona explained to us that the name Strachitunt derives from the Bergamo dialect for "stracchino tondo," and is produced with whole raw cow's milk using the ancient method of layering the evening curd (commonly called "cold curd") and the morning curd ("hot curd"). We arrived just in time to witness Arturo scooping "hot curd" out of the vat and placing on top of the "cold curd" in round cheese forms, like this:

From there, it is allowed to drain on tables and is flipped twice over the course of two days, in which it looks like this:

It's hard to tell from the picture, but Strachitunt is actually a blue cheese without any added blue mold into the milk. During the minimum aging of 75 days, holes are made into the wheels to encourage the growth of mold which is naturally present in the cheese. It smells like a blue cheese, looks like a blue cheese, tastes like a blue cheese, all with no penicillium roqueforti or other blue mold added. It also has two different textures, because of the layering of the curd. Finished wheels look like this:

Strachitunt is one of the many alpine Italian cheeses that was made for centuries, but then neglected in the 20th Century. In just the past 10 years, the cheese has made a comeback in its hometown Valtaleggio region. It is available in the United States through Forever Cheese.

After introducing us to Strachitunt, Arturo also made time to tell us about the Taleggio squares he had made the day before, and which were ready to turn while we were there. He showed us the straws that are placed on the bottom of the stainless steel drying tables to give Taleggio its famous rind texture. You can also see the plastic brand that is placed under the Taleggio after turning, which is imprinted into wheels of DOP Taleggio, like this:

Arturo makes one of just a few raw-milk Taleggios available on the market, and makes two or three vats of Taleggio a week. Each vat, which holds 1,000 liters of milk, will make 72 squares of Taleggio. However, since it is still summer, and the cows are on high alpine pastures, or alpages, they are not producing as much milk as they will in the winter when they stand around in barns all day and eat hay. So he will be under-production of Taleggio until about November.

All of his Arturo's Taleggio is purchased and aged by the artisan cheese aging company of casArrigoni, located a few miles down the mountain in the village of Peghera. CasArrigoni is a third-generation cheese aging family, and owners Tina Arrigoni, her daughter, Adele Ravasio, and nephew, Cesare Brissoni, gave us a 2-hour tour and tasting at the impressive modern facility that prides itself in aging cheese in the traditional manner of placing Taleggio in wooden boxes covered with cheese cloths. Here's what the cheese looks like when we peeked under the cloths:

As it matures, Taleggio is aged in four different successive curing rooms, each at a different temperature and humidity. Each square is flipped and washed at least once weekly, and every week, the box and cloths are cleaned. Cesare showed us how it's done.

CasArrigoni ages its Taleggio for 50 days to achieve a maximum flavor and texture. Most industrial Taleggio is aged for a mere 35 days. Taleggio exported to the United States is put on a boat at about 30 days, so that in a month, it arrives at port at the magical age of 60 days, the minimum age a raw-milk cheese can be imported into the United States. The folks at casArrigoni also hand package every square of Taleggio.

By law, squares of Taleggio must weigh between 2.2 - 2.4 kilos. The Arrigoni family is firmly committed to aging Taleggio in only a traditional matter, and is proud of the product it puts on the market.

"The economy of this valley is based on Taleggio. It is important for us to stay here and age the cheese where it is made," Adele said. "That's why we still work by hand and personally choose each piece of cheese for our clients." With 20 employees and a third generation in strong position to carry on the Arrigoni name, it looks like Taleggio will continue to be aged in the Valtaleggio valley for a long time.

Next up: witnessing the making and aging of the king of cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano at Caseificio San Paolo.

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

Friday, September 27, 2013

On Location: Beppino Occelli in Valcasotto, Italy

Before traveling this week to northern Italy, I was already a big fan of Beppino Occelli butter, made in Italy and available in American in select specialty stores. But I never realized the extent to which the company has transformed an alpine community once in decline into a real "cheese village," aging rare Langa and Cuneo mountain cheeses using traditional Old World methods I assumed were long lost.

After driving two hours from the Village of Bra up a series of mountains through tinier villages full of people who looked at our bus like we were from outer space, our group arrived at Beppino Occelli in the hamlet of Valcasotto. In 1976, Mr. Occelli began restoring the community's buildings into cheese aging facilities, and today, the community is home to a world-class underground affinage facility, restored flour mill, retail shop and restaurant.

Felice Costardt, a young affineur, was generous enough to give us an hour-long tour of the extensive aging cellars, which are truly underground rock cellars that look exactly like the cobwebbed hand-hewn rock rooms below the farm house in which I grew up. Humidity in the cellars is controlled by gravity-fed, pure spring water transported through a series of wooden troughs (pictured below), while each room is temperature controlled via more modern air in-and out-take methods.

Felice is in his 20s and is one of five full-time affineurs at Beppino Occelli. He came to the trade of aging cheeses by accident, after being hired as a chef by Mr. Occelli. After gaining more than 100 pounds while working in the kitchen, he begged for a different job, and began to work in the aging cellars, caring for the cheeses and learning from the previous "cheese master." Today, it is nearly impossible to believe the young man once weighed 300 pounds. "This job suits me much better," he said.

The first cheese we learned about was Cusie, a Beppino Occelli original, which takes its name from the local dialect and means “that which there is” or as Felice put it: "What's in the cheese?" It  refers to the fact that Cusie is made with whatever milk is available, and can be a blend of cow and sheep’s milk or cow and goat's milk. After production, it is aged 45 days in barrels filled with grape skins and then placed on wooden shelving for 2 months to age.

When young, it is turned two to three times per week and is then moved to a second cellar with a different humidity level, where it is aged another two to four months. Here, it forms unique molds on the rind, ranging from brown to white to orange. It is flipped once per week. It is then transferred to a third cellar for six months or more, with a lower humidity level. At each stage of the aging, different types of wooden shelves are used, ranging from apple to pear to cherry wood. Felice mentioned he never uses chestnut wood, because the wood is rich in tannins and would stain the cheese with dark spots. At a final age of 18 to 24 months, before being sent to market, Cusie is vacuum cleaned and stamped.

Several more cheeses are aged in the maze of underground aging rooms, but my favorite was entering the Castelmagno di Alpeggio DOP cheese aging room, which contained a large manger of dried hay - yes, dried hay in a cheese aging room. The cheese is unique in both its production method - the curds are crushed, broken twice, and then pressed into molds - and also in its aging practice, in which it attains its characteristic flavor of aromatic mountain herbs from absorbing the aroma of actual dried mountain herbs in the aging cellar.

As if this weren't impressive enough, Felice explained that in ancient times, the rock-walled room in which we were standing was the basement of an inn, and housed the animals of its guests. So the manger does not seem out of place to the folks aging cheese there, but it certainly seemed out of place to Americans used to sanitary rooms with stainless steel floor drains.

Following the cellar tour, we were treated to an amazing lunch and cheese tasting at Beppino Occelli of the following cheeses:
  • Tuma dla Paja: this soft and creamy mixed milk cheese sports a white, wrinkled crust with an aroma of hazelnuts. In Italian legend, at the end of the harvest in the farmhouses of the Langa, it was customary to place a fresh 'tuma' to mature under straw, or "paja" in the Piedmontese dialect. You can occasionally find this cheese in the United States, as it was named the best cheese at the 1997 Fancy Food Show in New York.
  • Toma del Monte Regale: made from raw cow's milk, this soft cheese has tiny holes in the paste and is milky and buttery. Think Taleggio without the stink. Yum.
  • Valcasotto Il Formaggio Del Re: in the past, Valcasotto farmers would offer their cheeses to the royal castle in exchange for the use of the meadows. Tradition says the square-shape of this cheese came about because it perfectly fit into the saddle of mules for transport to the king's palace, and its intense (read: stinky) scent reminded the king of the sun and the fragrant grass of the pastures.
  • Ocelli in foglie di Castagna: produced from goat or sheep and cow's milk in quantities that vary according to the availability of the season, this cheese is left to age for about a year and a half. The wheels are then wrapped in chestnut leaves which imbue them with a strong flavor. Interestingly enough, some wheels used to be wrapped in tobacco leaves, until the company was forced to put health warnings on the cheese label about the risk of using tobacco. Thanks for nothing, label nazis.
  • Escarun: the rarest of all cheeses invented by Beppino Ocelli, its name means "little herd." Made from the milk of sheep and cows grazing the highest pasutres of the Alps of Cuneo, the cheese sports a thin, dimpled rind and finely grained, crumbly texture. Each Escarun wheel is branded and numbered, almost as a unique piece of art. This is the largest piece of cheese pictured in the foreground, next to the spinach, below.

Of course, no tasting at Beppino Occelli would be complete without butter! And I'm pretty sure we ate our weight in the gold stuff.

Thank you to all the wonderful folks at Beppino Occelli for a truly remarkable experience. I will be searching out your cheeses from now on in the United States!

Next up: Making & Tasting Tallegio on the mountain top of Vedeseto, Italy

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Location: Quattro Portoni Caseificio Water Buffalo Dairy in Italy

Alert readers are expecting today's blog to be on Beppino Occelli in Valcasotto, Italy, and I do promise that will be coming. But it's not every day that I visit a water buffalo farm, and I can't wait to share my excitement. So here we go!

It had been three years since I last visited and wrote about Dubi Ayalon's water buffalo farm near Plain, Wisconsin, but the memory of a giant snorting bull with a ring in his nose trotting menacingly toward me was front of mind when we pulled into the Quattro Portoni Caseificio water buffalo dairy yesterday near Cologno al Serio, Italy.

Visiting a working water buffalo dairy was high on my list of to-dos when I began planning this year's Wisconsin Cheese Originals' cheese and wine tour of northern Italy. While almost all Mozzarella di Bufala is made in southern Italy as part of the Government Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP, there are a couple of buffalo dairies in northern Italy. We visited the farm of the Gritti family, who in 2000, decided get off the commodity milk train, sold their herd of Friesian cows that they had milked since 1982, switched to water buffalo, and added value to their farm by building a farmstead creamery.

Brothers Bruno and Alfio Gritti, along with their wives, Elena and Marina, and their beautiful daughters - two in graduate school to become doctors, and the third to be a lawyer - today make their own cheese and yogurt from water buffalo milk and operate an on-farm retail store. Bruno is the cheesemaker and Alfio is the herdsman, but the whole family is involved either through marketing, sales or just doing chores. The entire family was on hand to enthusiastically give us a spectacular tour of their family farm, followed by a tasting of nearly a dozen cheeses they make on site.

First of all, let me just say that water buffalo are not necessarily attractive creatures. They naturally look a little mean, and because they have lightening-quick reflexes, their sudden movements can make you think are going to trample and eat you. This of course is not the case, not only because they are herbivores, but also because the genetics of breeding calm, gentle water buffalo has been underway in Italy for hundreds of years.

The Gritti family has 900 water buffalo and milk the cows, which live in large freestall barns, twice a day in a double-15 parlor. Each cow gives, on average, about 7 liters, or almost two gallons of milk a day. This is incredibly low compared to Holstein cows, who think nothing of pumping out six to nine gallons a day. Water buffalo, however, live and give milk longer than the average U.S. dairy cow, with the Gritti's buffalo averaging 10 to 12 lactations (they just sold a cow last week that was a whopping 21 years of age). Cows must get pregnant to give milk, and in the dairy industry, we measure a cow's life span by how often they get pregnant. So that means the average water buffalo on the Gritti farm gives birth to 10 to 12 calves over the course of 10 to 12 years (their gestation period is 10 months). This is far longer than the average U.S. Holstein cow who lives to perhaps see four lactations in her productive lifetime.

We were lucky to see an hour-old newborn calf while at the farm. It stood for the first time while we were watching, and as we were cheering, promptly teetered on its new-found legs and fell down. We left it to bond with its mother and aunts (the buffalo are left to give birth in small groups of cows to calm them) and walked to the calf pens, where calves are kept until they are about one week old and are bottle-fed with buckets. After one week, they move to another pen, and learn how to eat corn and grain on their own. That takes about another 3 weeks. They are then moved in groups to larger pens, and gradually moved to successive pens as they age. The males are sold at 14 months for meat, and desirable females are kept as heifers to breed and give birth when they are two years old. The Gritti family uses both bulls and artificial insemination to impregnate the cows.

Anyone who has been on a dairy farm knows there are two main outputs to cows: milk and manure. In this case, the manure is hauled to a local, cooperative manure digestor, where the methane is converted into electricity. Meanwhile, the milk is pumped via an underground pipeline to the cheese plant and creamery across the road. There, all of the farm's milk - 500,000 liters, or more than 1 million pounds a years - is transformed into an array of award-winning buffalo milk cheeses and yogurt.

Bruno explained to us that he did not necessarily grow up wanting to become a cheesemaker, but he is the kind of man who likes a challenge, and isn't afraid to try something new. After the family decided to move forward with water buffalo, he went back to school and took a short course in Lombardy in cheesemaking. He then partnered with a cheese technician from Piedmont for six months, working on cheese recipes and to perfect the cheesemaking process.

Then he hired two young men who had just graduated from university in Milan with degrees in dairy science and trained them to be his full-time cheesemakers. In Italy, teenagers can go to a special high school to learn practical cheesemaking skills, but Bruno was not interested in hiring someone with experience.

"I was looking for someone with a virgin mind when it came to making cheese," Bruno said. "We were doing something completely different here, and I wanted someone who could think differently." The plan worked, as the two men are still on board as full-time cheesemakers, and the farm now has an employee roster of 12 people.

Because the farm is located outside the official Government Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP region, the Grittis make only enough fresh mozzarella to sell locally. What they really focus on is creating aged cheeses from buffalo milk that are traditionally made with cow's milk. Their most famous cheese is Blu di Bufala, which won the Best Italian Cheese award at the 2012 World Cheese Awards. A blue-veined cheese with square shape and a dry and wrinkly crust, it is mild and creamy, showcasing the natural sweetness of water buffalo milk.

Another well-known cheese is Quadrello, a soft cheese, made according to the local Bergamo region's traditional recipe for washed-rind cheese. The paste is straw-yellow in color, with small holes, elastic and soft especially near the crust. The Grittis also makes Crescenza, Ricotta, Caciocavvalo, Scamorza and a wide variety of what we usually think to be cow's milk cheeses using water buffalo milk. Aging takes place in modern, above-ground, temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms.

All but one cheese, Granbu, a semi-hard cheese made in a tall wheel that is similar in texture and flavor to the Swiss Sbrinz, are made using pasteurized milk. Sixty percent of the cheese production is exported, primarily to Germany, France and Singapore. About 25 percent is exported to the United States, where it is distributed exclusively through Forever Cheese in New York. Many of Quattro Portoni Caseificio cheeses are available in Whole Foods stores in Chicago.

Many thanks to the entire Gritti family for their amazing hospitality, tour and tasting! And tomorrow - I promise - a look inside the underground Beppino Occelli cheese aging caves.

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

Monday, September 23, 2013

On Location: Bra Cheese Fair in Piedmont, Italy

Known across the world as simply "Cheese," the Bra Cheese Festival in Piedmont, Italy is one of the biggest cheese affairs in the world. Organized by Slow Food and held for five days every two years in mid-September, the event draws more than 150,000 turophiles who turn the village of Bra into a pedestrian-only celebration of all things food. And since I first learned about the event in 2005, it's been on my bucket list to attend.

This year was my lucky year, as I organized my biannual international cheese tour for members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals around the Bra Festival date. Our group of 20 arrived on Saturday to a day of perfect weather and split up into mini-groups, each accompanied by our own translators and graduates of the University of Gastronomic Sciences. We set off with an agenda to taste rare cheeses, drink local beer, enjoy local wine, and basically eat for the next seven hours straight.

Now, while the event's overall aim is to promote regional Italian cheesemakers and local cheeses that are either in danger of extinction or exploitation via industrial commercialization, there are cheeses featured from around the world that you'll never have the opportunity eat unless they are handed to you on the tip of a knife by a cheesemaker at Bra.

First up was a cheese called Macagn, a whole raw cow's milk made in the mountains of the Piedmont region. Cheesemaker Gino Garbaccio gave us a tasting of the cheese made at three different elevations, at two different ages. At just one week old, this cheese has more flavor than many cheeses I've tasted at six months, and at three months, it felt, looked and tasted mature.

The neat thing about Macagn is that it is made at every milking. My handy dandy "2013 Slow Food edition of Italian Cheeses" says this probably came about because of the need to take advantage of the milk's natural temperature. Straw-yellow in color, the cheese contains scattered eyes and turns golden as it ages.

The other thing about Macagn is that each of the nine cheesemakers who make it use different make procedures and milk from animals on a variety of pastures at different elevations. We learned the Slow Food Presidium is working with these cheesemakers to draft production regulations to establish a uniformity and to give this summer mountain cheese a distinctive personality of its own. Perhaps the next time I visit "Cheese," Macagn will be even better!

Just down the street, we encountered our next rarity, Montebore, a Piedmont-based cow and sheep's mixed milk cheese shaped like a wedding cake. The cheese has a long history, dating back to 300 A.D. It was made continually until 1982, when the last cheesemaker decided to stop production. Thanks to the Slow Food Presidium, the unique cheese made a comeback in 1999, when two cheesemakers learned the secret of making the ancient cheese from Carolina Bracco, the last of the Montebore cheesemakers.

Montebore is made with 75 percent cow's milk and 25 percent sheep's milk. The curd is cut with a wooden curd knife and placed in molds called "ferslin", and then turned and salted. Three cheeses of decreasing diameter are removed from the molds, and allowed to stand for four to five hours. They are then washed with warm, slightly salted water and left to mature, one atop the other, for a period ranging from seven days to two months.

At one month old, the cheese tasted fresh and spongy. Yum. We also tasted it at 2 months old (mushroomy), 3 months old (clean and complex) and at 5 months old, which was beyond its prime. The rind had darkened to a soft grey color and smelled extremely of ammonia. If you ever get a chance to eat this cheese, I'd recommend the 3-month age.

Next up was the rare Morlacco di Vacca Burlina, made in the Italian provinces of Treviso, Belluno and Vicenza. The cheese is crafted from the milk of Burlina cows, a highly endangered breed (there are only 270 left in the world) that have the unfortunate characteristic of not giving much milk. Farmers breeding the cows are currently working with the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy to encourage more farmers to use the cows and save the breed.

Morlacco is a soft, uncooked, low-fat cheese made from milk from the evening milking, skimmed by allowing the cream to rise to the top, to which whole milk from the following morning's milking is added. The cheesemaking technique has remained the same over the centuries. The milk is heated to 38-42 degrees Celsius  and coagulated with liquid calf's rennet. The curd is cut up into walnut-sized lumps, left to stand for a short while, and then transferred to wicker baskets. The whey is allowed to drain. The cheeses are then salted and carefully turned over several times a day for 12 days. They are ready to eat at about 2 weeks, but can mature up to 5 months. We tried a cheese at both 2 weeks and 3 months, and both were outstanding. If I could get this cheese in the United States, I'd eat it every day.

While we tasted dozens of cheeses throughout the day, the last, but not least cheese I'd like to mention is San Ste, named for the patron saint of Liguaria, Saint Steven. While the cheese was made for centuries, it went extinct sometime in the 20th Century. Caseificio Val D'Aveto dairy revived the traditional cheese, making it with milk from Bruno Alpina and Cabannina cows that graze in the local pastures in the province of Genoa.

To make the cheese, raw milk is heated to 35 degrees Celsius and inoculated with powdered calf's rennet. It is then left to coagulate for 35 minutes. Next, the mass is cut into rice-sized curd, collected in a cloth and place on a board, where it is kneaded. Coarse salt is added and the mixture is transferred to forms, which are then pressed to drain off the whey. Next, the rounds are removed and soaked in brine for two days to harden the find. Finally, San Ste is moved to a damp, cool cellar and aged for at least 60 days, where it is regularly turned and oiled.

Cheesemaker Silvio Cella was extremely kind to us, and led us through a tasting of  San Ste at 2 months, 4 months and 8 months. At each stage, the cheese just got better. The 2 month-cheese was more yellow in color than the 8-month cheese, as it had been made in the summer when the cows were on pasture, and the 8-month cheese was made during the winter when the cows were eating hay. However, the butterfat from each of the ages stuck heartily to my tongue. Yum.

Cella was also kind enough to give us a sample of his company's raw-milk yogurt, as well as an aged ricotta-type cheese named Prescinseua that is made from cream instead of whey. I had never had anything like it, but it is well-known in Genoa. It's made by allowing cow's milk to sour, and once coagulated, filtered through a cloth. The cheese is traditionally eaten by sprinkling with sugar and served at the table. It is also used in the kitchen, especially for Easter cakes.

Over the course of 7 hours, I learned about and tasted more than a dozen cheeses I never knew existed. Thank you to Slow Food and the village of Bra for hosting such an amazing event. I hope to visit you again someday.

Next up: visiting the Beppino Occelli cheese aging caves in Valcasotto, Italy.

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

On Location: Luigi Guffanti Formaggi per Tradizione in Italy

I'm not going to lie: when third generation affineur Carlo Fiori Guffanti led us through a glass door, down a series of steps, and into the underground aging cellars of the renowned Luigi Guffanti affineur house of hanging provolone, pecorino, parmigiano reggiano and rounds of cheeses I had only ever seen in books, I started to cry. Even in a room full of 20 members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals on the first day of a 10-day Grand Cheese Tour of Northern Italy, I could not contain the emotion of being in a room where so much history, care and passion of this simple, but oh-so-complex thing we call cheese, has taken place over the course of 150 years.

It could be that we arrived after 36 hours of traveling via delayed planes, bus and automobile, or that my luggage was "untraceable" via British Airways, or that I was facing the fact I'd be wearing the same clothes I left home in for days, but the emotion that cheese can elicit always surprises me. And Carlo Fiori Guffanti, our tour guide for a 2-hour visit to one of the most famous aging houses of Europe summed it up best: "Cheese is easy, but not simple."

An exceptionally kind, small man with bright eyes, fluent in Italian, French and German, but halting English, Carlo Fiori knows cheese. His grandfather, Luigi Guffanti, began to season Gorgonzola in 1876 in an abandoned silver mine in Valganna, in the Varese province of the Lombardy region of northern Italy. With the mine's consistent year-round temperature and humidity, those first Guffanti cheeses matured so well that Luigi quickly cornered the markets. His sons, Carlo and Mario, at the beginning of the 1900′s, exported as far as Argentina and California, where people of the Piedmont and Lombardy had emigrated.

Today, Carlo Fiori Guffanti is the elder of two upcoming Guffanti generations set to take over an operation aging 180 types of cheese. And if he teaches them half of what he taught us over the course of two hours, the Guffanti house of cheese will endure forever.

Here's how our tour started: with the stomach of a goat, aged five years, cut into tiny pieces for us to eat. It turns out that goat stomach tastes a lot like goat cheese, except stronger. Carlo's point: cheese starts with basic ingredients: milk, enzymes taken from the stomach of an animal, cultures and salt.

"Cheese was not invented, it was discovered. It is the result of men who discovered that instead of eating animals for protein, they could have them eat green grass in the summer, hay in the winter, and then use their milk to make a new kind of protein: cheese," Carlo told us. "Cheese is the only way man has found to preserve milk, and it has changed the world."

At that moment, he brought out a board of nearly a dozen Robiola cheese rounds, one of Guffanti's more famous cheeses. They ranged in age from just right to really scary, but Carlo's point was that they were all still edible. "Cheese never dies. It just changes," he said. I made the mistake of referring to him as an amazing "affineur," and he quickly corrected me that there is no word in Italian for a man who ages cheese for a living. "Affineur" is French. The closest words are "stagionatura", which means seasoning, or "affinate", which means refined, or improved. I guess perhaps Carlo is an "affinater" which is a word I pretty much just made up.

After leading us through a series of caves, or cheese aging rooms containing some of the most beautiful cheeses I've ever seen, including: Pecorino Foglie, a pressed sheep's milk cheese from Tuscany, wrapped in walnut leaves and rubbed daily with olive oil; Piacentinu Ennese DOP, a  sheep's milk cheese from Sicilia infused with saffron and black peppercorns, and Quartirolo Lombardo DOP, a rectangular cheese similar to Tallegio, but made with milk from the end of summer, Carlo led us down a hallway lined with Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padana, and a wooden shelf of wheels marked with names and dates. These cheeses had all been made in honor of the birth of his nephews, and will be eaten on a special occasion in the boys' lives. "This is our tradition," Carlo said.

After the tour, it was time to go upstairs. "I have shown you the cheeses. Now they will speak for themselves," Carlo told us. And they did. The Guffanti staff had set up an impressive spread of more than a dozen Guffanti aged cheeses, including a one-year aged Gorgonzla Piccante, the cheese that first put Luigi Guffanti on the map.

After we were nearly done, Carlo brought out two more cheeses: my favorite, Robiolo, and a special treat: 2-year Comte, cut from a series of wheels we had drooled over in the aging rooms.

Then it was time to say goodbye. Many cheek kisses and thank you's later, I talked Carlo into signing the brim of the Luigi Guffanti hat I had bought in the cheese shop. "Wear it the next time you come to see me," he said with a smile. Will do.

Next up: Bra Cheese Fair and checking off another item on Jeanne's bucket list.

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.