There are around 450 protected Italian cheeses, from which we have picked six. First up are Gorgonzola, Parmigiano and Mascarpone, followed by Mozzarella, Pecorino and Ricotta.
We are in the north of Italy, in Piedmont and Lombardy (Milan and Turin are their capitals). Gorgonzola has been made for thousands of years, originally from the village of Gorgonzola, which has now merged with Milan.
There are two legends about the birth of Gorgonzola. One tells of a young cheesemaker who courted until the evening milk turned sour, the other of a restaurateur who gave a mouldy cheese to his guests, who, to his surprise, loved it.
It is made from cow’s milk and has a fat content of 48-55%. It is produced in 6-12 kg discs and matures for 2-4 months. Two types of Gorgonzola are known, one is the ‘dolce’, slightly sweeter, to be eaten with salads and starters, the other is the more characteristic ‘picante’, which is more suitable for main courses. It can be eaten in risottos, on pizza and, of course, with pasta, but in this case it is better to use short pasta (penne, rigatoni).
Parmigiano means Parma. It is a cheese from the Emilia-Romagna region, of which Parma is one of the provinces. Similar cheeses are also sold outside Europe under the collective name ‘parmesan’, usually grated, but this is not the original version. If you want the real thing, stick to Parmigiano Reggiano.
It has been made in its original form since the 13th century. Already mentioned by Boccaccio in the Decameron.
It is a hard cheese, with a yellow and fragmented paste and a fat content of 32 %. It is produced in 24-40 kg loaves, according to very strict specifications. The milk must be processed two hours after milking and only natural raw materials are used. The minimum ageing period is 12 months. The outer rind is dark and not edible. It will keep for months and can be refrigerated.
It is excellent with pasta, risotto, vegetables, but it is also a must for Minestrone. It is sublime with thinly sliced Parmigiano balsamic vinegar.
Mascarpone is more like thick cream than cheese, but its popularity is growing.
Once again, we are in the home of the longobards, in Lombardy. Mascarpone is made in the Lodi and Abbiategrasso area. It is said that Mascarpone comes from here, from the former farm of the Mascherpa family.
This soft, creamy, milky white cheese has been made from cow’s milk for centuries. The taste is unsalty, slightly off-flavor and mildly sweet. Its fat content is around 70%. It used to be made exclusively in autumn and winter.
Mascarpone is used in sauces and gravies, but it is most often used in confectionery. Tiramisu should always be made with good quality mascarpone.
It is mainly used on pizza or in salads, but is also delicious mixed into pasta dishes. It is best sliced thinly, topped with tomato rings and basil leaves, then drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper. You can also do the same with mozzarella balls and cocktail tomatoes on a skewer.
Pecorino means sheep. Originally, this hard, aromatic cheese was made exclusively from sheep’s milk. Nowadays it is also made from goat’s and cow’s milk.
There are four protected varieties of pecorino in Italy.
Roman: Pecorino Romano
It was already eaten by the Roman legionaries and is probably the most popular pecorino cheese. It is produced in the province of Lazio. The older it is, the spicier it is. It is a hard, aromatic cheese that is excellent for grating.
Sicilian: Pecorino Siciliano
Softer when raw, less pungent than Roman. Young Sicilian pecorino is used in pecorino sandwiches, while older varieties are used to flavour pasta and gnocchi.
Sardinian: Pecorino Sardo
Softer, sweeter than Roman. It is used more in sandwiches and salads. For those with strong nerves, a special pecorino called casu marzu is available here. This rather divisive cheese has larvae in it, which many people eat.
Tuscany: Pecorino Toscano
This is another cheese with a rather intense flavour, but creamier, similar to Sardinian pecorino. Even when mature, it does not have the saltiness and aroma of Roman pecorino. It is fantastic at the end of a meal with pears or honey.
Often made from the whey leftover from the pecorino production process, ricotta cheese has long been a relegated cheese. Its colour is white, its texture is soft and its flavour is sweet, similar to cottage cheese.
Ricotta means ‘recooked’. The whey is boiled and the remaining mass is reheated. It has been made since ancient times.
Ricotta is known for its many uses: in pasta sauces, as a pizza topping, in lasagne and ravioli. In spreads, it is excellent flavoured with herbs.
It is also used in sweets, cakes, cheesecakes, ice-creams, and is the base for the Sicilian sweet cannolli, a small tube of pasta in which flavoured creams are poured.