Depending on who you ask, the word pecorino may conjure up a hilltop town in Tuscany, the bustle of a Roman caffè, or the sun-drenched beaches of Sardinia. This deceptively simple sheep’s milk cheese is made throughout Italy and takes on the character of wherever it is made.
Pecorino (simply: a sheep’s milk cheese) was the cheese of choice for the Roman Empire, and techniques to produce it were spread wherever the Romans went. This became the springboard for the great diversity of cheese styles that developed throughout Europe over the course of the next centuries. While many of these new styles of cheesemaking made their way back to the Italian peninsula, several techniques remained uniquely Italian. It is impossible to think of Italian cheese and not have the pasta filata (lit: stretched paste) cheeses like mozzarella and caciocavallo come to mind. However, while mozzarella is a classic, there are other uniquely Italian cheeses born from a lesser-known Italian cheese tradition — the art of aging cheese.
Affinato is the Italian art of maturing cheese. Italian aged cheeses often take the form of classic cheese styles found throughout Europe, such as the grand washed rind cheese taleggio or the creamy, bloomy rinded robiolas. There is, however, one form of affinato that distinctively expresses the Italian character more than any other. This technique has no single name, but shows up time and time again in Italian cheese making: the art of using cheese as a pedestal to showcase the local agricultural specialties of a region. Whether infusing, wrapping, rubbing, or soaking a cheese, the list of ingredients found throughout the country knows no bounds. But the three most classic additions to the aging process are wine, truffles and chestnut leaves.
It’s hard to mention the culinary world of Italy and not talk about its wine. As with cheesemaking, the Romans spread viticulture throughout Europe, and today, Italy is the world’s largest exporter of wine. It would only make sense, then, that wine would make its way into the cheese aging process.
Many Italian cheeses are rubbed in grape must (the grape skins left over from the wine making process). This take on affinato lends a subtle fruity note to the finished cheese. For a more robust infusion of wine, other cheeses are soaked for several days as part of their maturation. In the case of ubriaco* (literally meaning plastered or drunken) cheese, the ripe fruit flavors meld beautifully with richness of Italian cheese [*note: Ubriaco is not currently available online]. In northern Italy, a collective of small farms produces a savory take on this tradition in the form of weinkase lagrein, the cheese soaked in lagrein wine. Garlic and black peppercorns are added to the wine during soaking, resulting in an herbaceous cheese that stands its ground next to any Italian cured meat.
Nobody does truffles better than the Italians. These aromatic little balls of umami can be found from the rolling hills of Molise to the alpine valleys of Piedmont. During spring and summer black truffles (tartufo nero) can be found grated and minced into mouth watering cream sauces. While in winter the prized white truffle (tartufo bianco) is often thinly sliced over plates of cooked scamorza, mozzarella or caciocavallo. When it comes to maturing cheese, the Italians have invented countless ways to incorporate the intoxicating flavor of truffles. As it nears the height of its aging, the marbled moltinero al tartufo is infused with black truffles – lending it the appearance of a classical statue and a wonderful, earthy flavor. The more modest sottocenere has a paste dappled in truffle flakes and a rind coated in ash. The result is a more subtle cheese that finishes on a harmonious note of musk and smoke.
There is something irresistible about a small round of cheese wrapped in leaves. It looks amazing on a cheese plate, and creates a mystery around what can be found inside. However, this form of affinato serves a very practical purpose as well, as it keeps the cheese from drying out as it ages. Yet, every once in a while, a leaf is used that also imparts a taste of the place where it was made.
Nothing highlights this more than a pecorino wrapped in a walnut leaf. This simple pairing has numerous expressions with cheese textures ranging from springy and smooth to firm and flaky. A distinguished example is pecorino foglie di noce from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. The young pecorino wheel is wrapped in green, walnut leaves and placed in an individual crock. Like childhood sweethearts who grow old together, the cheese and leaf age in tandem over several months. The result is a robust, earthy cheese with a slight, crumbly texture.
This is just a sampling of the ingenuity and culinary richness of Italian cheese traditions. Stop into a Murray’s store or check back in with us online, as we celebrate all things Italian throughout the month of September.