Are you ready to step outside your Italian cheese comfort zone? Beyond Provolone, Parmigiano and Asiago. Away from Taleggio, Mozzarella and Mascarpone. There are well over 300 (some sources cite as many as 600) varieties of Italian cheese and most of us have barely touched the tip of the Italian cheese iceberg. From the alpine valleys of Italy’s SudTirol to the islands of Sardegna and Sicily, the regional cheeses of Italy speak volumes about the culinary and cultural heritage of their place of origin with a sense of tradition and the idea that nothing better can be found away from one’s home town.
There is a pride and fierce loyalty about the cultural distinctions of regional Italian food. The cheese that is found on your antipasto platter, grated on top of your pasta or used as a filling or ingredient in a favorite regional dish is thought of as a reflection of the land and the artisan’s hand often made by generational producers who are committed to preserving and protecting the culinary and cultural heritage of regional Italy food and bringing the best to the family table.
So let me introduce you to a cheese from the Valle del Piave, a deep valley in Italy’s northern Dolomites in the province of Belluno. An atmospheric Italian Shangri-la with myths and legends of gnomes and “wild men” who know the secrets of making cheese. Just such a man (uomo selvatico) might have taught the local shepherds how to make magrello one of regions many distinct cheeses. The renowned Caprino di Cavalese, stinky “Puzzone di Moena” and Silver Medal winners from the Mountain Cheese Olympics, can be found on the Dolomite cheese route. But magrello, made from the organic milk of the goats in the Piave Valley, may be special. Considered to be little “creatures” by their makers, bred until they have the right maturing, magrello is a mythically inspired cheese from a mythical valley in northern Italy.
You think you know Italy. You’ve traveled to Rome, Venice and Florence. You’ve been to Siena, Cinque Terre, the Amalfi coast and Como. You’ve been to Pisa, Parma and Pompei and basked under the Tuscan sun. Seen the towers of San Gimignano and drunk the Brunellos of Chianti. Bravo fellow Italian traveler you’ve just began to discover Italy!
There’s much more to see and learn about Italy and like the proverbial onion or tip of the iceberg you need to dig deeper and peel away the layers of “show and tell” travel to discover Italy beyond the beltway. Mozart toured Europe as a child, something that was not commonly done at that time. Traveling with his father and other members of his family he performed for various courts and dignitaries. Journeys that exposed him to many different styles of music (notably Italian and German) with lasting impressions that influenced his destiny as a composer. Mozart made three trips to Italy with varying degrees of pleasure and success but uncontested in the wealth of ideas that strongly influenced his artistic development.
On your next trip to Italy, travel like Mozart, go further afield and look for something completely different. Besides Assisi visit La Verna, a Franciscan retreat in the centre of the Tuscan Apennines, where Francis received the stigmata. Discover that there’s more than wine in and around Chianti, visit San Giovanni d’Asso near Siena for truffles with a side trip to an Italian terme. Drive the historical route of the Brenta Riviera and visit the Palladian villas of the Veneto near Vicenza. Stop at Trattoria Porto Menai dall’ Antonia along the canal in Mira for a spectacular feast of scampi giganti griglia (giant shrimp, grilled) with prosecco to drink.
You may have seen the Sistine Chapel but the mosaics of Ravenna will leave you with an equal sense of wonder. Leonardo’s Last Supper is amazing but Giotto’s interpretation, located in the Scrovegni chapel on the estate grounds of a Paduan money lender’s son who in atonement for his father’s sins sought redemption through art, is in many ways as intriquing as Leonardo’s masterpiece in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Discover antica farmacia (pharmacies) where healing ingredients from nature create an Italian sense of benessere. They can be found all over Italy if you know where to look. Visit Ferrara, Verona, the Gonzaga court of Mantua and Bellagio for a romantic view.
Learn new things about Italy to add to what you already know and come up with something completely different in your travels. I guarantee you’ll never think of Italy the same afterwards and never think about having a cappuccino after 12 noon.
Anyone who knows me knows I like pork. That means I like pigs. I live in the Midwest region of the US and pigs are probably the most common farm animal in this part of the United States. Two states away from my home state is Iowa, the second largest pork producer in the United States. Two other Midwest states closely follow. But my fondness for pigs was taken to another level after taste traveling in Italy where it would be difficult to overstate Italy’s insatiable taste for pork. Salami is very Italian and almost always made with pork. Italian prosciutto is iconic and porchetta, a whole pig dusted with a seasoning of salt, herbs and spices, rolled or folded tightly shut, wrapped with twine and put in the oven or spit roasted is found at almost even festa and street market.
I’m fascinated by Italy’s heirloom breeds like the Tuscan Cinta Senese resurrected and raised by Raymond Lamothe at Azienda Agricola Casamonti near Castellini in Chianti (Siena). The Cinta Senese are named for the white “belt” (cinta) around their midsection. Raymond and his butchers transform the cured hams into prosciutto that rivals prosciutti from Parma or San Daniele. Once endangered, interest in this ancient breed (their gastro-history dates back to the Middle Age and Renaissance) was reignited by Raymond and we are the happy beneficiary of his efforts.
So when I heard about the Mora Romagnola pig, a breed from Romagna near Ravenna and Russi, with their dark brown-black coat (mora means “blackberry, mulberry or moor”) and almond shaped eyes – they had me at Oink. In 1949, there were around 22,000 examples of the breed, but 12 years ago, this number had been reduced to less than 15 and the breed nearly disappeared. Raised in a region known for wheat and flour, breeder Mario Lazzari and a group of dedicated estate pig farmers saw the beauty and benefit of preserving and protecting this culinary and cultural taste of Italy.