Sometimes, I feel like a mouse.
Scrambling around the kitchen looking for a scrap of cheese hoping not to get caught as I scarf back a piece of incredible cheese that I was most likely hiding from the rest of my family. I can almost become frantic.
Painting a bad picture of my cheese weakness? Sorry about that.
Well, you can imagine how I felt when I was in Piedmonte last month.
Yes, it was all about the pastas and the meats and the Barolo and the Asti and beer and the chocolate…do I need to go on?
But, we saw cheese. We ate cheese. We cried when we left the cheese.
We were lucky enough to be a part of a bunch of different cheese tastings…like the one pictured below that was paired with wine and was our first foray into the local cheeses of the area.
All of the cheeses, which ranged from young and creamy to aged and crumbly, are proudly made with stringent rules when it comes to documenting the wheels that are produced, labeling procedures and selling. These producers lose an incredible amount of money to companies that make cheeses claiming to be the same. However, without the intense productions standards, they don’t even come close.
One of the cheeses that we learned about at this first tasting is Toma. The word ‘toma’ actually means ‘cheese made by the farmer himself’! Cool, right?
It is produced Aosta Valleys and Piedmont and is made from Italian cow’s milk.
One of the formaggeria (cheese shop) was called La Poiana and it sold all kinds of incredible cheeses….the most highly regarded being Castelmagno. This cheese is made in the Cuneo region of Piedmont and depending on the length of time that it ages, it can either be mild and creamier, or, if aged longer, a stronger sharp taste. If a dish uses the younger Castelmagno, it melts so well that it can even be the base of a pasta sauce (the gnocchi with a Castelmagno sauce below was a great dish!)
We learned all about Rocchetta, a creamy cheese made from cow’s milk, goat’s milk, and sheep’s milk, when we spent the day at The University of Gastronomic Science. It’s a soft cheese reminiscent of our north American goats cheese paired with a creamier brie but with a smoother finish….at least that was my take on it!
We used it to make an Italian macaroni and cheese when we were creating different dishes that day. This ain’t your mama’s mac and cheese (unless your mama lives in Piedmont!!).
These cheeses, specifically Castelmagno, are produced so diligently that their number (see below) can trace back to the animal that was milked, the date it was finished, and even who it was sold to.
The labeling system is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. For Castelmagno, the label is formed this way (below) for a reason. It is to be displayed by the store owner (whoever purchases the cheese) and, if a customer buys the cheese with part of the label, the store owner always needs to keep a part of the label (to ensure visible authenticity) and then, when the last piece is sold, the label is to be burned (to ensure no one ever reproduces the label). Pretty incredible, right?
The last place we visited, below, had a plethora of cheeses that were fascinating…
The storage of these cheeses was quite unique. There were the usual bare-rind cheeses (below) which, I learned, are brined in a salt solution and then left to cure. Some “fake cheeses” have a wax coating which, for many reasons, isn’t good. It affects the flavour and disrupts the aging process. But, more importantly, when you finish a cheese with a good rind, you never throw it away. I know this (you can read this post about saving your rinds) because I’ve been saving them and then tucking them in risotto or minestrone for years. But what I didn’t know is that, in Italy, after it has been re-hydrated in a soup or risotto, they often grill it and serve it as an appetizer! How incredible does that sound??
Some of the cheeses were stored in a wrapping of hay!! The flavour is supposed to be unreal!!
And the cheese that I bought a small piece of and brought home was this (below)…a unique version of Castelmagno with…wait for it…pieces of pear in it!! It is glorious!!
I decided to use the cheese to make a simple risotto. I’d love it if you tried your hand at risotto. It may seem intimidating to you but it’s actually quite easy….you can even make it ahead of time, cooking it about 3/4 of the way through and then finishing it when your guests are at the table.
If you can’t get your hands on Castelmagno (I do know it is available at some of the finer cheese shops in Toronto), you can always sub in a cheese like a firm asiago.
And, if you need another reason to make it, the leftovers make some killer arancini!!
The basics for a risotto are pretty simple - olive oil, the right kind of rice, butter, white wine and stock. The end result is all in the procedure. You might have to try it a few times before you get the right liquid and the right texture. But, whether or not you nail the consistency, it should always taste delicious!
- 1 medium onuon finely chopped
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 cups arborio rice (if you can find carnaroli rice, it's a bit better)
- 1/2 cup white wine, dry
- 2-3 cups chicken stock (you can sub in veggie stock)
- 1 - 1 1/2 cups water
- 3 tbsp butter
- 1/2 cup castelmagno (or similar cheese)
- 1 handful spinach leaves, finely sliced
- 6 large basil leaves, finely sliced
- 3 oven dried tomatoes (you can use sun dried but make sure they are moist and not rubbery)
- olive oil, for drizzling
- basil leaves for garnish (optional)
Bring the 1 1.2 cups of water and two cups of broth to boil; lower to a low simmer and keep hot (although in Piedmonte, they didn't heat it up!!)
In a large pan over medium heat. Saute onion in the olive oil until very soft and translucent but not yet brown.
Add the rice and salt and continue to cook until all the rice is coated with oil and the rice has turned opaque; add the wine and cook, stirring frequently until all the liquid is absorbed.
Pour one cup of broth into the rice and stir until that liquid is absorbed; add the final cup of rice and bring to a full simmer.
Repeat the process of adding liquid and stirring until all of the liquid is absorbed; taste the rice at this point (it should be almost cooked through with just a small crunch of dry rice in the middle) and then stir in the spinach and basil leaves
Remove from the heat and use a spoon to quickly stir in the butter rapidly for a full minute (the texture of the actual rice, when finished, should be firm in the middle but not quite crunchy and the consistency of the risotto should spread when scooped on to a plate). If the consistency is too stiff, add more liquid and continue to stir.
Fold in the cheese but do not completely stir it in as you should get some bites of saltiness as you enjoy your risotto; season to taste with salt and pepper.
After you plate each dish, top with a few pieces of oven dried tomato (I like the tang combined with the smoothness of the risotto), a crumbling of cheese, a drizzle of olive oil and maybe a few leaves of basil