It's a brilliant summer morning and I have trekked high above the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy to a stone village so steep and out of reach that mules are its only form of transportation. I am higher now than the vertiginously terraced lemon groves and vineyards that make this landscape so unique, higher too than the white domed houses that are witness to the area's former Arab domination. As I climb the ancient sheep's path, the air is scented by wild thyme underfoot.
I have been brought to Tramonti (the word means "sunsets" in Italian) by Roberto Rubino, who is considered a visionary of cheese, to watch the making of raw-sheep's-milk cheese. In 2000 Rubino won the prestigious International Slow Food Award for the Defense of Bio-Diversity for his work in saving artisanal cheeses created, as he puts it, "under the skies." A scientist by profession, Rubino set up a nonprofit organization, ANFOSC, in 1995 to promote and aid the production, in Italy's underdeveloped south, of raw-milk (unpasteurized) cheeses made from the milk of free-grazing animals.
"At its purest, cheese is simply coagulated milk," says Rubino as we watch Signora Giordano shepherding her flock into the stable for milking. "The quality of the milk is the most important element in its making." Rubino explains that milk is a product of a unique set of geographical conditions. "Cows, sheep, or goats who live outdoors and forage in natural pastures verdant with hundreds of different grasses and herbs lead healthy, peaceful lives and produce milk that is both rich in nutrients and wonderfully flavorful." It is Rubino's goal to help small, isolated cheesemakers like Signora Giordano safeguard the quality of this milk as it is turned into cheese, making sure it is worked at temperatures that do not kill its essential constituents. "When the particular territorial character is preserved," he says, "the results can be great."
Over the next few hours in the signora's rustic stone dairy we watch as the milk and rennet are gently heated in a cauldron over a wood fire. As the pure white curds form, she scoops them carefully into perforated molds and then presses them gently by hand to begin forcing out the whey. Worked at this very human pace, and at temperatures that do not exceed 93°F, the milk retains its beneficial and aromatic qualities. When the excess whey has drained off and the cheeses have been turned out of their molds, Signora Giordano sprinkles coarse sea salt over them to add flavor and aid in the forming of the crust. Then she carries the cheeses into the damp little stone grotto beside the dairy to ripen slowly on wood shelves for about three months. Assisted only by her daughter, Signora Giordano makes an average of 20 pounds of cheese per day. Her husband helps tend the flock and grow the family's vegetables, but as has traditionally been the case in rural areas, the men mainly do the heavier work. It's the women who make the cheese.
Rubino and I sample some of the cheeses that have already matured, the delicately flavored pecorino—made from pure ewe's milk from the Costiera Amalfitana. I can immediately tell the difference: The sweetness and complexity of aroma and flavor are a direct reflection of the animals' diet and of the natural cellar—it's like tasting the essence of a luscious spring meadow. "The aim of our project here," says Rubino, "is to help people like the signora consistently make better cheeses, and to find specialty grocers and restaurants who will pay the higher prices they deserve." Rubino believes that if more young people can be encouraged to follow the signora's lead, this landscape and its villages, which have lost so much vitality as local youth have moved off to the cities, will be brought back to life. "Otherwise," he says, "it's practically impossible to compete with the supermarkets and their bland, mass-produced goods."
A central part of Rubino's battle has been to defend raw-milk cheeses from the attacks of industry and the overzealousness of the health authorities. Larger dairies have been constructed throughout the country, chiefly in the plains, where access is easy, and now produce cheese in industrial quantities. "But how can you control where all that milk comes from?" Rubino wonders. "Especially if most of it is from cows that are shut in sheds all their lives, eating processed dried feed? Sure, pasteurization sterilizes the milk, but it diminishes its nutrients and flavors."
Raw-milk cheeses have existed for thousands of years, and there is no evidence of danger in eating them, as long as they are carefully made. Their low pH factor (5.2) and natural acidity inhibit the growth of dangerous pathogens. "In any case," Rubino explains, "if a cheese did contain harmful bacteria, they would die off after sixty days of maturation, so there is never any risk in eating well-ripened raw-milk cheese." Ironically, many industrial cheesemakers have to add back some of the very elements that are lost in pasteurization, such as stabilizers, enzymes, and cream, which are necessary to turn sterilized milk into cheese. The list of ingredients for raw-milk cheese is short: milk, rennet, and salt.
If France has traditionally been considered the home of great cheese, it is because dairy products have always been so important in the French diet: Apart from in the very south, France produces no olive oil and has relied on butter as its main form of fat. The sparsely populated countryside has made it easy for farmers to graze their animals, and cheese has long been the most refined expression of a dairy's production. When the European Union proposed legislation that favored giant industries and threatened small artisanal cheesemakers and their unpasteurized cheeses, the French—politicians and populace alike—rose up to fight it. In Italy the situation is different. Until relatively recently, the long mountainous peninsula was divided into distinct regions. In the densely populated plains there has always been a rivalry for space between man and his animals; consequently, cattle, goats, and sheep were grazed on mountainous slopes suitable only for pasture. (Many Italian cheeses are still made in the hills. This has made transhumance—walking the herds up to the high pastures in summer and then bringing them back down for the winter—a vital part of the cheesemaking practice.) Although wonderful cheeses have always been made in Italy, cheese has traditionally not been valued by the ruling classes. It was looked upon as a humble peasant's food, a supplement to a diet whose principal fat was olive oil.
In recent years there has been an exciting rediscovery of traditional Italian cheeses from all parts of the country. And many of them are among the best cheeses in the world. "Italy has over 400 cheeses, practically one for every valley," says Carlo Fiori, one of the most senior of Italy's affinatori di formaggio. The art of the affinatore is to help the cheeses age well in order to bring them to the table—via specialized shops and restaurants—at their peak. Although few people are familiar with this behind-the-scenes job, it is a very skilled craft, requiring in-depth knowledge not only of the finished cheeses but also of their origins. "You could say that the affinatore's job is to bring out the soul of a cheese," Fiori says. "I spend a lot of time with the cheesemakers in situ." For instance, Fiori travels to Lake Maggiore, in the north of Italy, where many cheeses are made during summer in small quantities in the surrounding Alpine pastures. Fiori decides when to transfer the cheese from the dairy to one of his aging cellars, where it will remain until it is fully ripe. "Cheeses made from raw milk are alive," he says, "and need as much care as children to mature properly."
Curious to see one of these cellars, I bundle myself into a jacket (the temperature in most cellars is never more than about 55 degrees) and accompany Fiori to his spectacular underground vault in the lakeside town of Arona. Thousands of cheeses of all shapes and sizes sit on wide wooden planks in large rooms whose temperatures and humidity vary depending on the requirements of their occupants. The aromas change from room to room, too. I gasp as we walk past a wall of two-foot-wide wheels of farmhouse Parmesans from 1997 (each cheese is dated and coded for traceability). "Even cheeses as famous as Parmigiano Reggiano, which is a raw-milk cheese by definition, vary from producer to producer," Fiori says. "It all comes down to the quality of the milk." He pulls one down, scores the rind, and breaks the cheese in two. Immediately a warm scent fills the air. "Parmesan should never be cut with a knife," he explains, revealing the cheese's knobby-textured, golden interior. I taste a small chunk and it's exceptional: perfectly balanced and mellow.
Being shepherded through this array of cheeses is a treat, but one that very few cheese lovers will have. Hoping some of Fiori's expertise will rub off, I ask him how I can be sure of getting a cheese as good as these when I go shopping.
"Unfortunately, the eye alone cannot be trusted," he says. "So you must find a trustworthy cheesemonger who can guarantee the cheeses' provenance. Then it's up to your nose and palate to decide." He smiles, closes his eyes and, like a great wine taster, gives the cheese a knowing sniff.
Luckily for those of us with less decisive palates than Fiori's, the culture of cheese appreciation is growing steadily. Cheese counters across the United States now offer an array of raw-milk cheese and a knowledgeable staff to help shoppers make good decisions. Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's in Ann Arbor advises his customers to read labels and signs, ask questions about where a cheese is made, and, of course, ask to taste the ones they are interested in buying. "That's the best way to guarantee a happy fit. Since each batch of artisan cheese is different—even from the same producer—you can't buy on name alone." In turn, American cheese lovers are becoming experts in their own right on artisanally made products. "People now think in terms of region and 'terroir'," says Steven Jenkins of Manhattan's Fairway Markets, which carry a range of raw-milk cheeses. "And there's no better place than the United States to find these cheeses. The selection here can only be described as too good to be true."
Formaggio: A Primer
In Italy, 30 cheeses currently have Europe's DOP status (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), which guarantees quality and safeguards traditional ways of making cheese. However, some cheesemakers choose not to be included in the DOP, which allows pasteurized milk. Since DOP status is not always labeled on cheese, it's best to ask your purveyor. Here, a selection of fine raw-milk Italian cheeses now available in the United States.
From the Valle d'Aosta, fontina has a sweet, delicate taste and semisoft texture that melts well. Serve it as fondue or as table cheese with a white wine from the region.
The best castelmagnos come from Cuneo, in the Piedmont region. Primarily of cow's milk, this mellow, semifirm cheese has a crumbly texture and occasional blue-green marbling. Serve it with a Barolo or the Barbaresco of Albino Rocca.
This Piedmont cheese from the Alpine valleys north of Biella is smooth, creamy, and sweet, with small holes. Beware of maccagno that comes from the plains; it is less decisive in taste and may be made of pasteurized milk. Ask your cheesemonger about the origin to be sure.
Robiola di Roccaverano (DOP)
Originally a goat's-milk cheese from Asti, robiola is now found in mixed-milk versions as well. It is eaten fresh or aged for three or four weeks, when it develops a soft crust with soft white mold. Try it with a young Piedmontese red or Grignolino d'Asti.
Gorgonzola Dolce and Piccante (DOP)
Gorgonzola is made in two styles: the dolce, which is sweet and creamy with light marbling, and the piccante, which is much bluer and can be quite fiery when well-ripened. Both go well with oxidized dessert wines.
Parmigiano Reggiano (DOP)
This quintessentially Italian cheese is an aged cow's cheese from Emilia-Romagna. The real thing has its name written in dots along the rind. Never cut your Parmesan with a knife; break off pieces with a wedge so the cheese's rough texture is exposed. Eat it with a few drops of balsamic vinegar from Modena, accompanied by a good red wine.
Formaggio di Fossa from Sogliano or Talamello
These ewe's-milk cheeses from central Italy may be ugly, but they're delicious. The earthy flavor comes from having been buried in the ground for several months. Try them with a powerful red wine such as Ercole Velenosi's Rosso Piceno Superiore.
Raw-milk Pecorino Toscano
This ewe's-milk cheese comes in different varieties, each made in a specific area, such as Balze Volterrane or the Crete Senesi hills. They are fragrant, delicately flavored cheeses to savor with a glass of good Tuscan wine.
Mozzarella di Bufala Campania (DOP)
Though good mozzarella is flown in daily, even the freshest mozzarella di bufala in the U.S. has lost some of its remarkable elastic texture in transit. It's worth a trip to Paestum, south of Salerno, to taste the raw-milk variety at Vannulo. You've never tasted mozzarella like it. The locals eat it alone, with no salt, pepper, or oil.
Canestrato Pugliese (DOP)
A sheep's cheese with a biting flavor, canestrato is named for the baskets (canestri) of Apulian reed it is ripened in, which give it its crinkled rind and contribute to its flavor. In Apulia it is eaten as is, or grated over one of the great regional dishes, orecchiette with broccoli rabe.
The podolico cow of southern Italy thrives in hot climates and produces a stringy cheese like mozzarella. It is sold both fresh and matured (aged in grottoes for at least one year). Pair it with a well-structured white, or a big aged red.
Caciocavallo Ragusano (DOP)
The ragusano is a hard cow's-milk cheese. It's formed into large rectangular blocks weighing up to 35 pounds and matured hanging from thick ropes. It is dense, well-salted, and decisive in flavor. Serve it with a fruity red, like Cerasuolo di Vittoria.
Under the direction of Edward Edelman, New York-based Ideal Cheese has become one of the country's top cheese importers since opening its doors in 1954. It carries 22 kinds of Italian cheese, many of them raw-milk, and hundreds of others from 18 countries around the world, including vacherin Mont d'Or, the only soft cheese to originate in Switzerland, and burrata, a stuffed mozzarella from Bardi. Buying from Edelman himself is like attending a seminar: He famously introduced Jarlsberg to America in 1962, and he still acquaints his customers with his discoveries—whether brought back from the Swiss Alps (Etivaz) or mailed to him from a fan in Louisiana (a triple-cream from the Bittersweet Plantation Dairy). "If I don't find them," Edelman says of his new varieties, "they will find me." Edelman also shares recipes, entertaining ideas, and instructions for storing cheese. If you can't make it to the shop, Ideal Cheese supplies restaurants and hotels such as DB Bistro Moderne and Balthazar in New York, The Greenbrier in West Virginia, and Lake Placid Lodge in the Adirondacks. It also ships any amount of cheese nationwide, from a $6-a-pound Canadian cheddar to the $25-a-pound vacherin. At 942 First Avenue; 800-382-0109, 212-688-7579; www.idealcheese.com.
Artisanally made cheese has many champions in the United States. Our favorites, who all ship overnight, are below.
In business since 1940, Murray's sells a large variety of Italian raw-milk cheeses, including formaggio di fossa and castelmagno. At 257 Bleecker Street; 888-692-4339; www.murrayscheese.com.
The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills
Purveyor to restaurants like Valentino's, Patina, and Spago, this cheese shop was rated the best by Los Angeles Magazine. At 419 N. Beverly Drive; 800-547-1515; www.cheesestorebh.com.
Ihsan Gurdal's shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is known for its cheese cave, where cheeses finish aging. The store carries more than 400 cheeses. At 244 Huron Avenue; 617-354-4750; www.formaggiokitchen.com.
Adding to its hundreds of varieties of artisanally-produced cheeses, Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has recently begun producing its own cheeses and gelato. At 422 Detroit Street; 888-636-8162; www.zingermans.com.
The Pasta Shop
Sara Wilson's Oakland, California, store stocks 150 varieties of domestic and imported cheeses from more than a dozen countries, all cut to order. $ At 5655 College Avenue; 510-547-4005; www.rockridgemarkethall.com. This Web site carries a large selection of raw-milk Italian cheeses, including the hard-to-find caciocavallo ragusano. It also takes phone orders. www.esperya.com; 877-907-2525.
Eating and Buying Cheese in Italy
ALTRO-LUOGO AIMO E NADIA At 13 Piazza della Repubblica, Milan; 39-02-290-17-038; www.altro-luogo.com.
MIRAMONTI L'ALTRO $ At 34 Via Crosette, Costorio di Concesio (Lombardy); 39-03-027-510-63.
DA CAINO At 3 Via Canonica, Montemerano (Tuscany); 39-05-64-602-817; www.dacaino.it.
LA PERGOLA At 101 Via Cadlolo, Rome; 39-06-350-92-152.
CIBUS At 7 Via Chianche di Scarano, Ceglie Messapica (Apulia); 39-08-313-889-80.
RISTORANTE DUOMO At 31 Via Capitano Bocchieri, Ragusa Ibla (Sicily); 39-09-326-512-65.
LUIGI GUFFANTI $ At 140 Via Milano, Arona (Piedmont); 39-03-22-47222; www.guffantiformaggi.com.
LA CASERA DI EROS BURATTI At 19 Piazza Ranzoni, Verbania (Piedmont); 39-03-23-581-123.
PECK At 9 Via Spadari, Milan; 39-02-80-23-161; www.peck.it.
VOLPETTI At 47 Via Marmorata, Rome; 39-06-57-423-52; www.fooditaly.com.
CASA MADAIO At 13 Via Serracapilli, Eboli (Campania); 39-08-28-364-815; www.casamadaio.it.
PIZZO & PIZZO $ At 112-114 Via Perez, Palermo (Sicily); 39-09-16-162-855; www.pizzoepizzo.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.