Food

Cheese of Piemonte: History, Politics and Diplomacy

Each of them has interesting stories to tell, but even those who escape these (rightfully) rigid bonds tell us tasty ones.

As a Roman, my relationship with cheese is a long-standing one, born at the local creamery, close to Campo de’Fiori. This introduction makes it sound as though cheese is associated with a taste of childhood because of all the pezzettini the old apron-adorned ladies made me taste before my grandpa Alfeo would buy a thing. But as a curious traveler, my relationship with cheese has its roots in recent, though no less intense, experience of a taste of continuous and constant discovery of the places I have visited. Together with wine and local specialties, cheese has always opened doors to deepen my knowledge of different cultures. Two that come to mind are the Sardinian Casu Frazigu or Martzu, a pecorino colonized by the larvae of the cheese fly with a very intense flavor, or of the Charcoal cheese of Lincolnshire (UK), which sees activated carbon mixed with Cheddar, giving the tasting experience of local cheese a whole different color.

With this mindset, moving to a new place has always called for an immediate tasting of a local cheese platter to be paired with a glass of wine or beer. This was true for me in Brussels, in Paris and in London, but not in Turin. Why? Upon first moving to the Northern Italian city, this personal tradition of mine was put momentarily aside in favor of plin, a traditional stuffed pasta served with a rich roasted meat sauce, and bonèt, a pudding made of eggs, sugar, milk, cocoa and amaretto cookies that I truly, and deeply love. 

It may seem odd, but my first encounter with Piedmontese cheeses incidentally took place in a French bistrot in the lively Torinese neighborhood of San Salvario. After settling into the city, I said to myself, “let’s celebrate with a bottle of Bordeaux” and went with a dear friend of mine to this cozy little place. A bit of a winery, a bit of a bistro, with tempting terrines, cheese and wines elegantly displayed on the original wooden shelves – inheritance from its past life as a bakery, this place had always fascinated me. On that day, a late Spring afternoon, I had just left work and I was enjoying the crisp air that only the end of a day stuck in co-working sessions can make you fully appreciate. A small table on the sidewalk, two chairs leaning against the window just waiting to be occupied, a bottle of French wine ready to be uncorked: these are the expressions of true happiness.

Between a confiture, a paté and cheese properly displayed and explained on the sumptuous cutting board, the French owner gave me another reason to be happy: lighting the spark for Piedmontese cheeses too. It all started with an innocent observation on the similarities, in name and method, between the French Reblochon and the Rebluson from Val Susa. The names both come from the same Patois word “reblocher” (re-milking). And both are the product of a custom in which the breeders only partially milk  the cows in the presence of the owner, and then later milking the cows to make cheese for themselves. As often happens to me, in certain situations I need a spark to get me hooked on discovering something new. Only this time it tasted sweet and had a delicate nutty aftertaste!

With a unique blend of art, culture, food, wine, nature and traditions, Piedmont is a truly special region. Endless are the stories told around the table, but the ones I’m going to share with you have only three main characters: milk, rennet and salt. Let’s consider the different settings, such as valleys, hills and mountains, with which Piedmont is rich, as well as the origin of the milk (cow, buffalo, donkey, sheep and goat) and different production techniques, philosophies and voilà, exploring the world of Piedmontese cheeses could last a lifetime.

Let’s start from the basics, with the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), which can be interregional, as is the case for Taleggio, Grana Padano and Gorgonzola, or regional. With regional varieties  including Bra, Murazzano, Ossolano, Raschera, Robiola di Roccaverano, Toma Piemontese and the King of Cheeses: the Castelmagno. Each of them has interesting stories to tell, but even those who escape these (rightfully) rigid bonds tell us tasty ones.

Going on this journey, we could end up in 1489, in the valleys of the Ligurian Apennines, attending the wedding banquet of Isabella D’Aragona and Gian Galeazzo Forza, nephew of the Duke of Milan Ludovico il Moro, enjoying a cheese with a castelletto shape chosen by master of ceremonies, Leonardo Da Vinci, for its auspicious meaning. Montebore – as it is called – actually has a much older history dating back to the 12th century, and which unfortunately would have been lost had it not been for the recovery of the tradition in 1982 by the food and wine expert Maurizio Fava.

Or we could discover how in certain areas some cheeses were used for bargaining, for the payment of rent, mountain pasture concessions or as a gesture of solidarity for the most needy. Or think of Bettelmatt, a slightly seasoned semi-cooked cheese produced exclusively in some summer pastures of the upper Ossola, which tells an ancient story with its own name: battel (begging, to be understood as charity) and matt (which in German means pasture).

A cheese also has the power to become an instrument of diplomacy, especially in valleys that are politically-disputed for their crucial value for transit and trade. Discover Viole in Val Chisone, a toma produced from the milk of the cows after the first mountain pasture, which coincides with the period in which the violets they feed on are blossoming. It was first produced in a limited edition, as we would now say, to make it even more precious. Viole was offered by the inhabitants of the valley to both sides of a conflict so that they could guarantee some peace.

From diplomacy to politics the leap is short, and we make it with a beautiful wheel of Maccagno in hand, a cheese of ancient origins. In fact, during his Roman stays, the Italian statesman Quintino Sella used to offer his friends and acquaintances this delicacy from Alpe Maccagno

With their shape, and above all their rind enclosing a delicious filling, the cheeses have the power to “take a picture” of a specific historical moment. They are a kind of time machine, as the Cheese Storyteller would say, and that’s when I think of the beauty of biting into a piece of cheese, alone or as part of a tasty recipe, in the company of Leonardo Da Vinci or Quintino Sella. Or, if I focus just on the milk, I can go back in time, about thirty years ago, to an old creamery in Campo de Fiori.