About 12,000 years ago, a nomadic shepherd somewhere in the Mediterranean poured his day’s milk into a sack made of a calf’s stomach before a long journey, only to open it a few days later to find that the milk had solidified and the substance was thick. Finding this rather odd, the shepherd was perplexed at first, but then realized the substance tasted good and was easier to carry than milk. Today, we thank this shepherd for this fortunate accident, as rennet is still used to separate the whey from the curds in milk. In other words, we humbly thank this shepherd for discovering cheese.
Cheese: that delicious dairy product that comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, textures and flavors. For Italians, cheese is an essential. With all of the tasty Italian options, it’s hard not to include cheese as a standard portion of each dining experience. Whether it makes cheese from cow’s milk, sheep’s milk or goat’s milk, each region in Italy relies on cheese for both meals and livelihood.
The most famous of them all, parmigiano, is used the world over to flavor a variety of dishes. Parmigiano-Reggiano is the king of all Italian cheeses. Produced in the Parma area of Northern Italy, the real deal is cut from a 65-pound round with the words Parmigiano-Reggiano stenciled into the rind. A highly digestible and versatile food, parmigiano adds a bit of protein wherever it goes, making it delicious and nutritious. A sprinkling of parmigiano makes everything taste better, and is used to top any dish from pasta to carpaccio (paper-thin slices of beef).
When shopping for parmigiano, it is smart to buy wedges of about half a pound each, which should be freshly cut from the large wheel. Although it might be expensive, this cheese has a rich and almost nutty flavor and is well worth the extra buck. Freshly grated parmigiano is scrumptious; Italians like the cheese so much they sometimes break it into pieces to eat with drinks as an appetizer. Indeed, chunks of fresh parmigiano drizzled in sweet balsamic is hard to beat.
Famous for their ability to make use of every part of their ingredients, the Italians have optimized the versatility of this cheese: when your portion of parmigiano is reduced to little more than its authentic rind, just drop it into soups or saucepots and you’ve added a little of that delicious flavor to your favorite dishes. You can save the rind in freezer-safe plastic bags for up to two months, so whenever you need a little more flavor, you’ve got the resources right at hand.
In addition to parmigiano, the list of Italian cheeses is extensive and delectable. Dried and crumbly gorgonzola is fine for snacking, but for cooking, the dolce or dolce latte (‘sweet’ or ‘sweet milk’) gorgonzola gives the same taste without overpowering the senses and is easy to blend into simple recipes. Gorgonzola has a creamy texture and distinct taste but is a bit sweeter than its French blue cheese cousin.
Both dry and fresh ricottas are delectable. Produced primarily in Puglia, Umbria, and Piedmont, try grating dry ricotta over pasta. Fresh ricotta, which should be consumed within in a few days, has a dry, firm consistency with a sweet and milky flavor that is used in lasagna.
Various types of a sheep’s milk called pecorino are made in Rome, Abruzzo, Sardinia, Sicily and Tuscany. When aged (stagionato), pecorino takes on a strong, sharp flavor. One of the most well-known types is pecorino romano, whose salty, stagionato flavor is often grated onto pasta, much like parmigiano. Fresh pecorino is milder and sometimes comes with spices or peppers included in the cheese.
Mozzarella is another Italian favorite that is not to be missed. Try the exquisite mozzarella di bufala—made from the milk of water buffalo; this creamy cheese can be enjoyed on its own or used to add flavor to a caprese salad or a pizza margherita. Mozzarella is packed in water, not shrink-wrapped, and should be eaten when incredibly fresh (no more than a few days old). The more common type is made from cow’s milk and called fiore di late: the flavor is milky and sweet, like ricotta, but with a springy, spongy texture. With fresh tomatoes and drizzled with olive oil and basil, nothing could be better.
Though there are countless others, from fontina to mascarpone to provolone, you can’t go wrong. When grating it, for best results make sure the cheese is cold. When in doubt, add more. If a dish is in danger of losing flavor, throw in one of those freezer-ready parmigiano rinds. And remember to give thanks to that lonely shepherd. Without him, who knows where’d we be?