Friday, August 15, 2014

When in Rome, make a Cheese Plate (Part II of V)

With two cheese plates down, I’ve reflected on national pride. National pride looks different to different people. Sometimes it’s a flag, an ethnic identity, an ideological belief. Sometimes, it’s a standard of living, a way of living, and a job well done.

With Italy, I’ve come to see much of the country’s national pride in the food.

I’m amazed by the cheeses here. Each region, sometimes down to a specific village or town, has a cheese to be proud of. Each region has a heritage, and a responsibility to uphold such a proud lineage of gastronomic proportions. The cheeses, and the wines, tell a story of where they come from, often with something special to remember them by. I will always savor how Mozzarella di Bufala Compana tastes, by itself and with quality balsamic vinegar. I will always appreciate Scamorza affumicata’s smokiness, or how the Northwest Cheese Plate brought with it a new-found appreciation for blue cheeses.


Before I go into describing this cheese plate, I must say that how Europe treats and views food is a breath of fresh air that I hope the United States will completely embody one day. I think we have lost our national pride in foods that goes beyond wines. Sure, we joke about the Midwest deep fat frying everything, or how California is one big vineyard, or New York’s bagels, or Chicago’s deep-dish pizza, or Appalachia being moonshine central, or, in my home state Virginia, the honey-baked ham. We have a history of food beyond the stereotypes, and I think the country has lost that pride with the replacement of factory processing and quantity over quality. We hide where food comes from, mostly because various corporations don’t want us to know. And while I agree in keeping a sanitary production of everything food related, I believe we’ve removed the humanity in what we eat. Almost everything I’ve eaten in Malta, although it is more so in Rome, tells the consumer exactly where it comes from on the label, sometimes down to the individual farm and the address. That’s a 'think global, act local’ mentality that I wish every place in the world included in its national pride, and something I think will be incorporated into my country’s pride in the near future.

Northwest Italy is made up of the following administrative regions: Aosta Valley (Valle d’Aosta); Lombardy (Lombardia); Piedmont (Piemonte); and Liguria. Every region either touches France or Switzerland, so there is likely some cross-national cuisine action going on or an Alpine culture that combines the neighboring regions’ cuisines into something spectacular (for example, the national languages in Valle d’Aosta are Italian and French). But each region is singular and individual, with different species of grapes that become fantastic wines, local languages, and cuisine specialties (Liguria is famed for being the original place of pesto, an important and very popular sauce throughout Italy as a whole).

It was hard to find the cheeses I was hoping to highlight, but with Eataly boldly labeling the regions of where their cheeses came from, I made do with what was there. Liguria was the hardest region to find a cheese, although from my research it seemed like blue goat cheese was something that came from there and so I found Erborinato di Capra as a substitute. We did find a wine that came from the Ligurian region (a DOC to boot), however, so I hope that will make up for it.


Because the cheeses turned out to be primarily pungent, soft, and two of them blue, the pairing suggestions tended to focus on fruits, nuts, and either fruity reds or semi-sweet to dry white wines. The Scamorza affumicata, on the other hand, didn’t feel like a ‘wine’ cheese; rather, it was something to be eaten on its own or being part of a dish where the food, not the wine, was the focus. The wine we purchased was a Durin Pigato DOC Riviera Ligure di Ponente Pigato 2013. It is a dry white, soft and round on the tongue, full-bodied and a distinguished as well as pleasant bitter background. Even though I tend to drink reds, I would recommend this wine to drink by itself or as an accompaniment to any dish with pesto or goat cheese.


Valle d’Aosta is known for Fontina, a cheese with PDO status. In the States, Fontina tends to be milder than what I purchased. The original stuff is quite pungent and intense, and the nectarine we paired it with seemed to lessen its bitterness. The wine paired nicely with it, rounding the sweetness of the nectarine and balancing the intensity of the cheese’s aftertaste. I wasn’t a fan of the cheese by itself, preferring to have the pungency be an accent to a dish instead of being prominent.


While Scamorza is typically known as a cheese produced in the south of Italy, Lombardia is also known for making the cheese. Like mozzarella, it is a pasta filata (or stretched curd) cheese, so it is easy to replace mozzarella with it in recipes. Scamorza affumicata is the smoked version, and one of our go-to cheeses when it’s offered. Although we typically get the pre-packaged kind, Eataly has a mozzarella station neighboring the cheese monger. They were offering fresh scamorza affumicata, so how on earth could we refuse? We tried a small slice before putting on the cheese plate, marveling in how different it tasted from what we usually ate. It had a sourer note, not as salty, but adding sea salt to it balanced the flavors quite nicely (CK also thinks it would have gone well on a bed of spicy Italian arugula, and I agree wholeheartedly).

As I said, Scamorza doesn’t seem to be the cheese plate sort of cheese, in that the cheese can be eaten on its own or as part of a dish, and the dish itself being paired with an appropriate wine. In this case, it was a “take it, or leave it” sort of deal with the white wine.


We picked Blu di Langa to represent Piemonte, and I was excited to try this cheese. Initially, I was hoping to find Castelmagno (a cheese with PDO status), but it was extremely hard to find. But when I saw the cheese through the display window, I thought it would be interesting to have two blue cheeses* to taste the differences. I was also looking for Gorgonzola specifically from that region (or Lombardy), but to no avail. But this cheese was a pleasant surprise, since I’m a bit cautious with blue cheeses in general. If you can imagine Brie that has blue veins, mostly mild and creamy with a little intensity per bite… oh yes, I was in heaven with this cheese. We paired this with golden apple slices, and it was a beautiful combination. I could imagine this cheese being used in a cheesecake, or on a bagel paired with a fig spread.

The wine went deliciously with the cheese, complementing the flavorful blue veins with something sweet and the creamy texture with a fruity sharpness that came with the combination. This was my favorite food, cheese, and wine pairing.


Finally, Eborinato di Capra to represent Liguria, and both CK’s and my favorite cheese on the board. It was milder than the Fontina, buttery and soft. And the blue veins were not bitter; rather, they were slightly sharp and gave you this pleasant surprise of flavor that was just enough without being overwhelming. We tried pairing it with the grapes (meh...), but in all honesty, this was a great “I stand alone” cheese with the possibility of some crunch with a good cracker. It was like that with the wine as well. It didn’t need to be paired with anything. It was heaven in its own right. 

This was a more challenging cheese plate to put together, since many of the cheeses (two of four) had to be picked on the fly, but like the first it was a delight to research the regions and their contributions to their country’s cuisine.


*A note on blue cheese and the gluten free diet:

From Tricia Thompson’s (MS, RD) (2011) “Blue Cheese” article: “In 2009 The Canadian Celiac Association tested 3 blue cheeses and 2 penicillium roqueforti cultures grown on a variety of gluten-containing media, including wheat-based dextrose, barley malt extract, and wheat/rye flour mixture. Results indicate that the gluten content is below the limit of quantification in these products using both the Sandwich R5 ELISA and the Competitive R5 ELISA (29).” For more information on this study, click here.

Now, while tests have been done and have shown that gluten content in blue cheese production is either low enough on both ELISA scales or quite possibly non-existent, I do urge people who are extremely sensitive to such miniscule amounts of gluten to do research and proceed with caution when eating blue cheeses in general. As far as I am aware, the Blu di Langa and the Eborinato di Capra are gluten free cheeses, and were safe for me (in that, I didn’t have a reaction, which tends to come on within a few hours of ingesting non-Morri friendly foods). But please be safe and follow your intuition with foods that are on the fence on such things.