Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Cheese Tango in Italy

Cheese...formaggio... Passion, desire, temptation, despair, love. A few words to describe the seductive lure of - the tango. Remember JLo and Richard Gere? And what of Banderas and his blonde partner? Truth is, I don't know one single step of this dramatic dance and Banderas will always be but a dream, but when it comes to artisan-style cheese - formaggio artigianale in italiano - the tango, and only the tango, succinctly describes how it makes me groove.

The gist of a Cheese Tango in Italy is exposing some of that cheese lust right here with names other than the usual staples like mozzarella and parmigiano. A total of nine, relatively unheard of formaggi (most of which come from northern Italy), has been selected by my husband aka the MotH (Man of the House). General details on milk, texture and regional location are given, along with serving or wine suggestions with an emphasis on matching cheese to a wine that is symbolic of like region. Are we experts on the subject? We wish! We're just devotees to what is definitely a substance that should be the stuff of moons. Once you've crossed into the land of artisan cheese and loved it, there really is no turning back.

The sit-down and tasting was the easiest part (nibble, take notes, a sip of wine, repeat). Try taking all that and assembling it into a post. Our westie and dachshund kept getting in the way as they know a good thing when they smell it. Grapes would've made fine palate cleansers had they been in season, but crisp pears, strawberries or other sweet fruit are okay. We kept the cheese course as close as possible to what a person would most likely experience in Italy: country-style bread, acacia honey (more appropriate with strong cheese), fruit jam and walnuts. The following video has photos and scenes while putting this together. Check the aprons!

[a high-definition version is also up @]

In order of appearance

BagossBagòss (bah-GOHSS) Presidio Slow Food
From Lombardia. A hard, compact, cow's milk cheese of fantastic flavor with hints of saffron. Bagòss makes the ultimate sausage & grilled cheese sandwich, italian-style, aka panino. It just needs to soften up real nice and slow on a hot griddle. Enjoy with an easy, velvety red such as Sforzato di Valtellina.

GraukaseGraukäse (GRAU-keh-seh) Presidio Slow Food
From Alto Adige. Not for the weak. In my husband's exact words, "it smells like an animal stall" and I second that opinion. The consistency is firm yet resilient, like a rubber eraser. As for the taste, we agree that it doesn't fall far from the apple tree either because I can't very well say that it smacks of a smelly barn. Graukäse means gray (grau) cheese (käse) - FXcuisine has a well-illustrated post on the making of this cow's milk cheese. A full-bodied wine was suggested to go with it but we prefer a strong beer to stand up to its overwhelming characteristics. Best taken in small doses, as in grated over plain pasta or schlutzkrapfen.

Toma del MaccagnToma del Maccagn (TOH-mah del mah-KAHN) Presidio Slow Food
From Piemonte. Maccagn is a dialect term and the letters gn in the 2nd syllable sound more like the middle vocals heard in the word "canyon". A semi-soft cow's milk cheese with delicate flavor and tang, yet distinguished in appearance (just cut off that mold), we suggest a red Nebbiolo from Piemonte.

Tella Alto AdigeTella Alto Adige (TEH-lah AHL-toh AH-dee-jeh)
From Alto Adige. The first thing out of my mouth when I took a nibble — EGGS! A firm cheese made from cow's milk, it has a smooth texture and slices clean. Its distinct flavor did remind me of hard-cooked yolks and I'm wondering, uhm, where's the bacon? Pour a bold red like Lagrein, but hold the pancetta.

Ubriaco al Traminer di CapraUbriaco al Traminer di Capra (oo-bree-AH-koh ahl tra-MEE-nehr)
From Veneto. Ubriaco = drunkard, but in this case, applies to this raw goat's milk cheese which is left to age in Traminer grape must. An item to show-n-tell at a tasting party (has bits of purple still clinging), it has sweet hints with a touch of spicy. This is where we were really wanting those juicy, plump grapes.

Canestrato di Castel del MonteCanestrato (kah-neh-STRAH-toh) Presidio Slow Food
From Abruzzo. Think sharp, cow's milk cheese as in an aged asiago and you'll get the idea, although the raw milk used here comes from sheep. Bold and spicy, this is essentially pecorino, the canestrato originating from being shaped in a wicker basket (canestro). Served with sweet onion marmalade or fig jam puts it over the top, with what else but Montepulciano d'Abruzzo red to drink with it.

Pecorino ai Pistacchi di BrontePecorino ai Pistacchi di Bronte
(peh-koh-REE-noh AH-ee pee-STAH-kee dee BROHN-teh)
From Sicilia. We had to have at least one island represented here so why not a sheep's milk cheese with those famous pistachios from Bronte? This pecorino doesn't particularly stand out as one to remember, but with a Nero d'Avola from Sicily, who's complaining? Pass the cured olives and bread. Cannoli for dessert.

Raschera SemistagionatoRaschera Semistagionato (rahss-KEHR-rah semi-stah-joh-NAH-toh)
From Piemonte. Semi-aged. A cow's milk cheese typically formed in a square shape. "Reminds me of gorgonzola," I said, between bites. It even looks like it too with the random blue mold marbled within. A little bit salty, a little bit spicy, it transcends into the sublime with floral honey drizzled over. I also used some to make this rustic-looking winter tomato tart. Instead of a medium-bodied red, sunkissed nostalgia begs for a sweet wine like Passito from Pantelleria.

Crottino al TartufoCrottino al Tartufo (croh-TEE-noh ahl tahr-TOO-foh)
From Piemonte. I saved the best for last, and how could it not be? With its mesmerizing aroma and flecks of black truffle, crottino was more than we could have ever expected. Purchased at Esselunga (a large chain of supermarkets), it goes to show the scope of what can be found without having to drive directly to the source. Made from cow's milk, the texture is a sort of powdery crumb that shaves and grates easily. Over risotto, pasta (try egg tagliatelle), or eggs fried in butter... Heaven on a plate! Or would that be heart attack on a plate? The shape is a cute little cylinder, approximately 8 ounces. And the wine? Barbaresco or Barolo. We love the latter.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sugar n' spice, and everything nice: Merano xmas market

Mein Beck bakery kiosk
German-style breads, pastries and cookies at Mein Beck Bäkerei.

Intro: while savoring a greedy mouthful from a pot of chili con carne over the stove, I said to myself, "Well this woulda been better with cheddar; wish I could fly to the UK right now." Then I began smiling at the crazy impulsiveness of it all because in our kitchen, cheese is undeniably the be-all and end-all of food indulgence. Formaggio frenzy. Cheese disease? Waxy golden wheels and mold-covered rounds, pyramids, logs and squares. Pungent wedges. Complete appetite turn-ons. The best steak in the world doesn't even do that for me. Reflecting on that chili, whoever coined the phrase 'cheddar is better' is a damn genius.

Which leads me to the hardworking geniuses who orchestrate the festive Mercatini di Natale in Trentino Alto-Adige every year. In 2007 we attended the one in Trento, and while I may have been blinded by the smiling gnomes, the mulled wine, and the scrumptious canederli dumplings, part of me does not recall a tempting cheese kiosk at the fair. Merano's market, although smaller in size, turned out to be such a gold mine in foodstuffs that we made 3 visits within a week. Here, photos of the be-all, end-all, and then some.

Cheese, cheese, cheese!
Looks (and smells) much better in real life. No cheddar, but lots of local cheese.

Cheese at Merano xmas fair
The interchange of italian and german was interesting to note as käse is german for cheese.

I'm sorry, but I do not know how to pronounce this word. It (they) tasted good though!

Dinnede for me
Looking like an oblong mini-pizza, dinnede with speck (local smoked ham) and onions. The decorated booth for these dinnede was a favorite with visitors.

Dinnede for you
Dinnede are made from dough following an ancient recipe. No wonder they tasted so darn good! Onions, speck, potatoes, cheese and truffles are the primary toppings. Black "burnt" spots because they are baked in woodburning ovens.

From the same people in the very top photo. They go by the name of Krapfen. Yeah, they're like filled donuts but BETTER. So light in texture, not greasy at all, and filled with custard, apricot jam or nutella. These were selling at 1.80 euros a piece and customers were going crazy for them. Sugar-addicted fools; nutella-dependent freaks; I count myself as one of the insane. Homer Simpson would kill for these.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A winter white new year

We are back, and let me say that while I got my wish for a white Christmas, waking up to a wintry wonderland on the first day of 2009 was like wishes come true all over again. This has been one very snowy season for Italy, the most I've ever seen since moving here. Can you tell that the Mads agrees with the stuff? The arrival of the new year saw a fresh layer of about 6 inches as a powdery veil fell continuously from the evening before. Let it snow baby snow! With a crackling fire in the hearth and a pot of bubbling fontal on the table, we celebrated untraditionally, à la fondue, one bite after another til the cast iron vessel ran dry. I need to remember that a pound of cheese is nowhere enough for two. Amazing how a cold, snowy night does something to morph your tummy into a bottomless pit. The dish of thick, melted cheese ran out way before midnight.

Even at less than 20F degrees outside and frozen flurries swirling like mad, there was no missing a celebratory toast in the middle of it all. Bundled up head to toe, with a bottle of spumante in hand, we cheered and barked (doggies celebrate too!) as the countdown began. At the stroke of twelve, a small show of illegal fireworks illuminated the night sky, cascading amidst icy precipitation. Maddie went wild; Mister Bentley so-so (actually Mr. B is pretty chill for an 11 month old pup, he’d rather pick a fight with a cat); and there I was sputtering as fat snowflakes smacked me right, left, and upside in the face. All across the valley rumbled booming echoes as neighboring alpine towns rang and blasted in the nuovo anno.


A couple feet deep and growing. MotH took a day off from work as road conditions make it too dangerous to drive. It's been snowing for nearly 36 hours straight! The first image below was taken yesterday morning. Yep, those are garden clogs that we are wearing. Just as well that we're stuck in the house since our guests have made themselves quite at home. In the 2nd image that's Mr & Mrs Snowman 24 hours later. I shot that photo this morning. For a brief moment it lightened up a teeny bit, but I believe that the frozen couple aren't in a hurry to leave anytime soon. Possibly, an extended family of snow aunts and uncles could arrive later in the day. What's it like in Hawaii now? Around 80 degrees? S.O.S. - send over sun!