Of the 52 Italian cheeses listed on the web site of Cambridge, Mass retailer Formaggio Kitchen (www.formaggiokitchen.com), 23 are from Piedmont. “Every town produces the most amazing cheeses,” says owner Ihsan Gurdal, who describes Piedmont cheeses as “much more refined than any other area of Italy.”
The cheeses may be more refined but until fairly recently cheesemakers view of the world was often primitive. “The Italians were a bit leery of dealing directly with us. Initially, we had to buy from ‘gatherers,’ who would go up into the mountains to get the cheeses from the producers,” says Gurdal, who has been making trips to Piedmont for the past 15 years, slowly gaining the access to and trust of producers. Still, he says, “We are just starting to scratch the surface. Every time we go we find something new.”
My Piedmont cheese epiphany came during tastings for our 100 favorite cheeses in 2008. I was bowled over by Brunet, a goat’s milk cheese from producer Caseficio dell’Alta Langa. Despite being made from pasteurized milk, this one-month old cakey cheese had it all: a mildly goaty aroma with nutty notes; an inviting, creamy texture; and just enough goaty tang.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. “Nobody (in Italy) comes close to making goat cheese like these guys,” Gurdal says. “They’re very close to the French in quality.”Though this wrinkly, ash-covered 10-ounce log may look French, Tronchetto di Capra (“capra” is goat in Italian) is pure Piedmont. As hedonistic a goat cheese as you’ll ever try, it has a kind of animal-like luxuriousness. Rich and creamy inside, it has a barnyard quality on the nose and palate.
Goat’s milk also features predominantly in Piedmont’s best-known cheese category: Robiola. While it can include cheese from the pasteurized or unpasteurized milk of goats, sheep or cows or any combination thereof, goat milk Robiola predominates with styles all over the map.
Robiola d’Alba al Tartufo is a mixed milk cheese speckled with truffles, which infuse it with that unmistakable earthiness. Robiola di Capra al Fiori di Primavera is a goat’s milk cheese showered with dried spring flowers. Others are wrapped and aged in cabbage or coated in rosemary or bees wax. My favorite of this type is Robiola di Capra Castagna, which is wrapped in chestnut leaves. It is an utterly captivating cheese that makes you swoon with each sensuous and nutty spoonful; gooiness is part of its charm.
Another Robiola favorite is Robiola Rochetta, also from producer Caseficio dell’Alta Langa and also a top 100 cheese. This three-milk beauty has a lush and creamy texture that is offset by a barnyardy nose that carries through on the palate.
While they may seem to have little in common, all Piedmont Robiolas are fresh, rindless cheeses to which cream is added. They are also allowed to ripen a week or more. The combination of these two factors creates something more velvety and sumptuous than one normally finds in a fresh cheese. (Don’t confuse Piedmont Robiola with Robiola from Lombardy, which is similar to Taleggio, Lombardy’s famous washed rind cow’s milk cheese.)
Robiola should be moist, soft and sweet without any bitterness, though you can age it for a week or two in the refrigerator, which firms up the texture and intensifies the flavor.
The creamy texture of robiola begs to be spread on bread or breakfast toast with preserves or honey. It also can be tossed with pasta, especially the truffled version. Fresh summer fruit (berries, peaches) is another idea for a snack, or simple dessert. A Piemontese spumante is a good wine choice as is the still (or frizzante) Moscato d’Asti. Also try Arneis, the perfumed dry Piedmont white, or a fruity Dolcetto.
Though more famous in Lombardy, Gorgonzola is also produced in Piedmont in two styles, both from cow’s milk. dolce is sweet, as in sweet cream, with a creamy texture to match. Aged or naturale Gorgonzola has a firmer texture and more robust flavor.
I absolutely love Gorgonzola on pizzas with often with caramelized onions and sometimes figs. On pasta combine it with other cheese(s) such as a pecorino (sheep’s milk) for contrast or with bitter greens such a radicchio or endive and perhaps some toasted hazelnuts.
Wines depend on the presentation. A vin santo or other sweet wine such as a tawny Port with dessert. For more savory dishes try a light and fruity red or Riesling.
Though I find them less compelling than Robiola, two other types of Piedmont cheeses to be on the lookout for, both from raw cow’s milk, are Bra, which can range from mild and soft to hard (duro) and more intense; and Castelmagno, a nutty cheese with an almost cheddar-like crumbliness.