Thursday, August 7, 2014

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

When looking at a culture, I’ve always said the best way to really immerse yourself into it is by tasting the food. I found it interesting that, with the number of times that I’ve traveled to Rome this year, I haven’t posted anything about it, especially the food. And that’s a shame, because my perspective of food changed because of living in the Mediterranean, eating homemade and wholesome foods, always fresh and usually local. I learned to savor ingredients in Rome, and so I thought to honor that by writing about cheese.

"I never had real cheese until I came to Rome." (CK)

I’ve mentioned before how CK is a cheese fiend, and it’s contagious. I have come to really enjoy cheese as a food in ways I didn’t before. I typically used cheese to top dishes, but I was never the sort of person to look at cheese as the main focus on a plate. When we arrived to Rome, I was trying to think of something fun CK and I could do together that was food related in August. I don’t know when I came up with the idea, but when we settled into his apartment, the game was on to create a cheese plate that described Italy in such a way that showed just how diverse and broad the food culture of country actually was.

Italy has more than Mozzarella, Parmesan, or Pecorino Romano to be proud of. The country makes hundreds of cheeses, and quite a few have PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, which promote and protect names of quality agriculture products and foodstuffs (an example of this is Champagne being found in only one part of France, and so not all bubbly white wines are called Champagne). I wanted to understand Italy through the cheeses it made, breaking it down to each cheese plate representing the larger regions (Northwest, Northeast, Central, Southern, and Insular) of the country, and each of those regions broken down into the twenty individual regions. Each cheese would have a food pairing, and each plate would have a regional wine.

To start this project, I did a bit of research. I made an excel spreadsheet of the smaller regions and came up with PDO cheeses for each one. I accepted the fact that some of these cheeses would be hard to find, and choosing one cheese over another should the neighboring regions overlap (which a few do). So to the Italians and cheese lovers alike reading this, I apologize in advance.

"To eat is an agricultural act.
 The first consumer’s agricultural gesture is to choose what to eat." (Eataly's Philosophy)
Lunch was freshly juiced "Pomodoro" and one deliciously prepared Mozzarella di Bufula salad.

CK and I spent the day running errands and found ourselves at Eataly for the afternoon. I still stand by my statement that this store is the love-child of Ikea and Whole Foods, because it leaves me in awe every time I walk through the door. There are multiple floors that break the store into categories of foodstuff: restaurants, kitchenware, coffee and desserts, pastas, meats, cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables, alcohol (it has wine on tap and an in-house brewery), and so much more. We picked up a few non-food things, but what we were there for was a nice lunch and to make the first cheese plate of the five-part cheese project.

I decided that, since we’re in Rome, I’d begin with the central region of Italy, which is broken down into the following administrative regions: Lazio, with Mozzarella di Bufala Compana; Marche, with Casciotta d’Urbino; Umbria, with Caciotta al Tartufo; and Toscana (aka, Tuscany), with Stracchino. 

The wine we picked was an Umani Ronchi Serrano Rosso Conero DOC* 2013, from Marche. It is a fruity yet robust wine, with a medium-body but sweet finish. It is quite pleasant, and we both thought it paired wonderfully with the Mozzarella di Bufala Compana and the Caciotta al Tartufo. The Casciotta d’Urbino and the Stracchino would have paired better with a dry white or a rose.   

The Mozzarella di Bufala Compana was sliced and paired with a heirloom tomato on top of spicy arugula, and the tang finish of the cheese really brought out the brightness of its paired foods (a great recipe for such a combination can be found here). The wine was glorious to sip on in between bites, a great balance of flavor and textures. 

The Casciotta d’Urbino was paired with dried fig, and I was surprised by how buttery it was. It is a mild cheese, slightly firm and, in my opinion, a fantastic dessert cheese suitable for fruits and honey. As stated, the wine wasn’t the best pairing, as it soured the sweetness somewhat of the cheese and fig. CK is not a big fan of dried fruits, but he was a trooper in trying it out, and ended up enjoying it immensely.

CK and I bought Caciotta al Tartufo when we arrived on Tuesday and loved it. I’ve had truffles in cheese only once before and wasn’t a fan, but this one definitely changed my mind. Although I paired it with olives on the plate, the suggested pairings for this cheese were either egg or pasta dishes. I can confirm the former, as I made a zucchini, onion, mushroom, and olive frittata topped with this cheese. This also paired well with the wine, balancing the pungent earthiness of the truffles as well as the briny aftertaste of the olives.

Finally, the Stracchino was matched with a ripening pear. This cheese isn't specific to Toscana, but there are a few dishes from the area that call for the cheese, and so I chose it because of that. It reminded me of cream cheese and mascarpone combined, and it was the softest and the most mild cheese on the plate. Decadent and filling, I enjoyed its velvet richness with the vibrant fresh crunch of the fruit. It also didn’t pair very well with the wine, resulting in a bitter finish.

CK and I had a hard time choosing our “favorite” cheeses, but I have become a huge Mozzarella di Bufala fan since my first bite and he isn’t much of a fruit eater, so we leaned towards the 'savory' cheeses and their pairings. But one thing is for certain, we’ve been eating cheese all wrong up until now… and we’re changing that.

And, delightful readers, should there be a certain cheese in the remaining regions coming up that you believe we need to spotlight, let us know the name, region, and suggested food pairing, and we’ll work to make that happen!

* DOC, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata ("Controlled designation of origin") is a quality assurance label for Italian food products, particularly wines and certain cheeses (Denominazione di Origine Protetta).

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