Gremolata’s Cheese Expert, Andy Shay of Shay Cheese, looks at fine cheeses and related topics in Canada and around the world. You can order your own supply of artisanal cheese from Shay Cheese to be delivered right to your door. Browse all of Andy’s cheese wisdom at the column to the left. Meet Andy at the Toronto Wine & Cheese Show: click here.
Are there only Five Italian Cheeses? (Parmesan, Mozzarella, Provolone, Gorgonzola and Romano?)
It is a rhetorical question and I suspect that you already know the answer – but if it is not true, where are they? If there has been a cuisine that has dominated the past 15 years in culinary interest it would be Italian. What was unheard of in 1990 is common today, from olive oil and Balsamic vinegar to Radicchio and Prosciutto. How could such a prolific, wide and varied cuisine have such a limited offering of cheeses when its neighbors, Spain and France boast at least 300 varieties apiece?
The idea seems suspicious and indeed with a bit of research the truth reveals that Italy is home to just as many cheeses as Spain and France. Why haven’t we heard about them? The common thought among Italians and Italophiles that I spoke with is that Italy has always been a fragmented nation and these small production artisan products are simply consumed locally. It sounds simple, but I think that there is a grain of truth here.
A few years ago Slow Food (An Italian inspiration and organization based in the city of Bra) published a guide to artisan Italian cheeses. Somehow I have two copies- but I never opened them knowing that a) I was not planning a trip to Italy and b) none of them were available in Canada.
But that is not true any more. The dam holding back Italian artisan cheeses from Canada has sprung a leak and Elvira Bertozzi is responsible.
If North Americans are swayed by name, than the Italians that I know are swayed by quality and tradition. Indeed, a conversation with Ms. Bertozzi is all about quality and the origin of her goods. Ms. Bertozzi is the matriarch of Bertozzi Importing a firm that has specialized in importing the highest quality Italian goods for decades.
A prime example is Parmigiano Reggiano. In the 1990’s we all learned that Parmigiano Reggiano is the “best” parmesan cheeses. Indeed, it is a fine cheese that has a DOP designation ensuring certain standards of production and authenticity, but they are not all created equally. A few weeks ago, I bought a chunk from my local grocery store. It was pale, acidic and had an acrid flavor.
Ms Bertozzi pried a piece of her Parmigiano Reggiano from a 30kg wheel, it was a different animal. The wheel is a rich tan/yellow color; the cheese is firm, but flakey. The cheese is full of umami (the mysterious fifth flavor) flavor, rich and complex and nutty with wonderful granular texture.
What accounts for this difference? Ms Bertozzi talks about the quality of the milk, the type of cows used to produce the milk, the fields where they graze and what they eat. It also turns out that while the wheels are being aged they are also regularly tested and the wheels of highest quality are selected for extra aging and marked with an “EXPORT” stamp.
This is the perspective from which the Bertozzi import their artisan cheeses. Many of the cheeses are only available for half of the year because the shepherds still drive their herds high in to the mountains to feed on the rich grasses during the summers and this is when the cheeses are made.
Below, I have outlined some tasting notes on a few of the cheeses available. They are unique and wonderful. So take up your cheese knife and head to the dam, let’s all suckle ourselves and make the crack a little bit bigger!
Tuma dia Paja – This is a delicate cheese, from the crinkly paper secured with raffia, to the undulating bloomy rind, to the oozing yellow interior. The cheese cloaks the mouth in silken creaminess that releases over time and leaves the mouth salivating. Made from sheep’s milk, it was voted “best cheese” at the New York Fancy Food Show – the premier North American food show.
Crutin – Aged in volcanic caves, this sheep milk cheese, with somewhat crumbly interior, has fresh truffles shavings throughout which lend a delicate flavor. Excellent on its own or incredible shaved over fresh pasta, on potatoes, or in risotto.
Testun Al Barolo – I think this is my favorite so far. This is a firm Alpine cow and sheep milk cheese that has been covered in the must (pits and skins) of Barolo grapes. The pale white cheese is covered with this deep purple mixture and is truly striking. The juices seek fissures in the cheese creating pale purple veins. Oh…and the aroma! Rich, fruity and nutty. The interior is firm and grainy with a sharp edge and is full of complex nutty flavors. Wow!
Castlemagno – The recipe has been perfected for at least 1000 years – it is pretty good! This is a cow and sometimes sheep and/or goat milk cheese. The use of the three milks gives depth and complexity to the flavor. The interior is very creamy and there is a faint bitterness and sharpness that leaves the mouth feeling very clean.
Blu di Fabrosa – A sheep milk cheese produced in the Alps at over 1000 meters of altitude. As with Roquefort, the cheese is seeded with a blue mold developed from rye bread. The cheese is a pale yellow and nearly translucent near the rind. The interior is a salty and lightly sharp blue that leaves a pleasant mustiness in the nasal passages and a tingling sensation in the back corners of the tongue.
Look for these cheeses at the Cheese Boutique, Shefflers at the St. Lawrence Market and All The Best on Yonge Street. Or call Bertozzi directly at 416-213-0075
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Calling all Cheese Lovers!
Ontario has a burgeoning cheese culture and it is being fostered by the Ontario Cheese Society.
If you would like to find out more about the state of the industry in Ontario and cheese in general the society has put together a block buster day of events as a part of the Toronto Wine and Cheese Show on March 24. Cost is $55 for members and $85 for nonmember. The events of the day include a presentation on raw milk by Max McCalman from the Artisanal Cheese Center in Manhattan, as well as lunch and panel discussions by industry experts. There will also be a separate cheese and wine pairing guided by Szabo & Szabo. There are only 100 spots so be sure to book early and find more details at www.ontariocheese.org.
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Andy Shay is a food devotee. After graduating from the Cornell Hotel School, Andy managed gourmet food stores in Manhattan and Sydney Australia. He moved to Toronto in 1995 and founded Shay Gourmet with his wife Meredith Johnson. For the past year, Andy has been a cheese consultant helping Quebec and Ontario artisan cheese producers access the market in Ontario. Currently he teaches at Centennial College, is the busy father of Max and Simon and delights customers with monthly cheese boxes from Shay Cheese.