Get The Dish: Traditional Cheese

Cheese has always played a central part of my culinary world. Back when airport security was more lenient my mother’s parents would bring carefully packaged wheels of Friulano on their visits from Italy. I remember watching Grandfather Sergio unwrap the heavy, treasured cheeses he painstakingly carried in his travel case – never understanding what all the fuss was about. Didn’t we have cheese in Canada? Grandfather said we did indeed but that it wasn’t the same! A typical old-world response, I would say to myself.

My grandfather was a casaro, or cheesemaker, by trade and when I was old enough to understand I was awestruck by the importance of his profession. His passion for cheese developed while growing up in the bustling port city of Nice, France where he was surrounded by a large number of varieties. After returning to Italy as young man his parents sent him to study cheese making at a school in the Veneto. It was during this time that he learned the art of curdling, ripening and storing while further mastering his skills by apprenticing at one of the largest cheese factories in the region. Owned and operated by his cousin he would tell me this experience was perhaps one of the most exciting of his life.

Following his retirement when I matured and began travelling to Italy, I came to realize that his skills and management of the local latteria, the dairy shop located his hometown of Friuli, was an essential service. Known from far and wide as the very best in his field grocers, farmers and residents from nearby towns would tell me that he could transform milk into cheese with golden alchemy and that his cheeses, a necessary culinary staple especially during wartime, graced every table in the community.

Cheese is an ancient food predating recorded history but scholars believe it originated circa SOOO BC when cows became domesticated. Although there are countless varieties made by traditional and modern methodologies, the production process includes basic principles. Fresh milk produced by dairy animals is extracted and placed in tempera-
ture-controlled stainless steel vats where it ferments. During fermentation the bacteria in milk changes the milk sugars into lactic acid. This acidity makes the milk coagulate, or curdle, into solid clumps. These curds are then removed from the vat, drained and subsequently shaped or placed into molds. The cheeses then undergo curing and aging.

Some are wrapped in wax and others bathed in salt and depending on the variety or desired taste the ripening process can take anywhere from several weeks to years. I clearly recall this final process as Grandfather would take me to his cheese cellar high in the Alps where he would brush mold off the surface of his cheeses even inserting a metal cylinder and removing a small sample so I could have a taste. Passing years ago, his passion lives on through his descendants who continue to savour its goodness.