The skinny on some of IWM’s favorite Italian cheeses
As a server for the IWM Vintage Tasting Room and our Studio del Gusto events, as well as being a sales associate in the store, I’m required to learn the ins and outs of each cheese and wine pairing, which couldn’t be a more enjoyable work requirement. In the spirit of sharing this delicious knowledge, I’m giving you a thumbnail sketch of some of my invaluable on-the-job cheese knowledge.
First, here are a few common terms to remember as you venture into Italian cheese territory:
Toma: this soft- to semi-hard cow‘s milk cheese comes from the high Alps of Valle d’Aosta and Piemonte regions of Italy. It ripens like Brie to create a thick rind with a pale to golden yellow sweet paste on the inside. One of Piemonte’s traditional cheeses, it works especially well with Chianti, as well as local Valle d’Aosta wines such as Torrette and Piemonte’s Dolcetto and Barbaresco.
Caprino: derived from the word, “capra,” which means “goat,” this cheese is made from whole or skim goat’s milk. It can be made in the fresco (fresh) or stagionato (seasoned) styles. The Fresco only ages for three to five days, and therefore maintains a soft, creamy texture. Fiano, Falanghina and Asti Spumante are white wines that serve this cheese well, as do reds like Barbaresco and Beaujolais.
Bra: originating in northern Italy in the Piemonte town of Bra, this cheese is made with pasteurized or unpasteurized cow’s milk. The unpasteurized version is the traditional hard style that ripens for three to six months. During this time, the color darkens and the flavor intensifies. The other type, which is pasteurized, is sold after only 45 days of aging while the paste is still soft.
Robiola: deriving from the word “rubeole“ (ruddy) due to the hue of its seasoned rind, Robiola is made from a mixture of cow, goat and sheep’s milk and is a soft-ripened cheese from the Stracchino cheese family (Stracca means “tired”; cheeses from the Stracchino family are made with the milk of tired cows since it’s richer in fats and more acidic). Robiola is tangy and has an intense aroma with subtle creamy flavors to compensate. Robiolas can be aged alone or wrapped in different kinds of leaves to absorb the flavors of the leaves, imparting complex flavors.
La Tur: my most favorite cheese on the planet, it is a bloomy, pasteurized mix of cow, goat and sheep‘s milk. It stands about two inches high and about two inches wide, cakey in texture, yet oozing towards the rim. It’s fresh but also tantalizingly funky. I love pairing this cheese with unusual, obscure varietals such as Frappato, Grignolino and Freisa.
Fontina: a cow’s milk cheese made in the Alps of the Aosta valley since the twelfth century, this cheese has stood the test of time and is one of the most popular and easy to distinguish Italian cheeses. Also made in Sweden and France, the Aosta valley stands as this cheese’s original hometown. Fontina is well known for its earthy and mushroom flavors, which pair perfectly with braised meats and shaved truffles.
Pecorino Romano: produced primarily in Sardegna and very popular in the States, this cheese is made completely from ewe’s milk. Showing a slight sweetness with a buttery and nutty aspect, Pecorino is usually aged for eight months, making the texture just right—not too hard, not too soft. This flexible cheese goes superbly with most Italian wines, especially Chianti Riserva.
Gorgonzola Cremificato: Also known as “Gorgonzola Dolce,” this gorgonzola is creamier and sweeter than most other blues and a lovely complement to sliced pears. If serving it as an after-dinner treat, don’t forget to pair it with every blue cheese’s favorite dessert wine, Sauternes.
Callu de Cabreddu: also known as Cabrettu, this unusual cheese dates back 6,000 years. A Sardinian goat’s milk cheese that is ripened in a baby goat’s stomach, the flavors of Callu de Cabreddu are extremely strong and explosive. It’s tough to pair this cheese with wine, because it’s so intense; I prefer this cheese on its own with some warm, Italian ciabatta bread.
As with the vast majority of Italian food, the adage “if it grows together, it goes together” works with wine and cheese as well. Check out the region, and if possible the township where your wine and your cheese originate. Chances are you’ll be on the right track. Or ask any of the IWM sales associates. We love to share our cheese expertise.