ITALIAN DELICACIES: ASIAGO CHEESE
A look at the Asiago, one of the noblest cheese varieties of Italy known for his sweet delicate taste, that obteined Protected Designation of Origin.
Italy has a cheese whose aroma is reminiscent of mountains, pastures and wild herbs. Asiago PDO(Protected Designation of Origin status - DOP in Italian, standing for Denominazione di Origine Protetta) as it is called, is one of the top five Italian PDO cow’s milk cheeses in terms of production.
The sweet delicate taste of this cheese has made it popular on International markets, as confirmed by an annual production of 23,000 tons. A “Mountain Product” can only be defined as such if the milk comes from farms located at an altitude of over 600 metres a.s.l.
WHERE IS ASIAGO CHEESE PRODUCED?
Asiago cheese is produced in Northern Italy: extending over the regions of Veneto and Trentino-Alto Adige stands the Altopiano dei Sette Comuni (Plateau of the Seven Municipalities), also known as the Altopiano di Asiago, after the name of a small town in the centre of this area. In an area extending for hundreds of square kilometres at an altitude of approximately 1000 m, surrounded by the Vicentine Alps and the foothills of Veneto and flanked by the rivers Astico and Brenta. The Plateau counts as many as 100 Alpine dairies in which Asiago PDO is produced.
Owing to its vast extension and impressive output, this is the most important pasture system of the entire Alpine chain. The area involved in milk collection and cheese production comprises four provinces, those of Vicenza, Trento, together with part of Padua and Treviso. Cheese production has been carried on here since the year 1000, initially with goat’s milk and then, from the 1500s onwards with cow’s milk.
WHAT IS ASIAGO CHEESE?
Cylindrically shaped with a diameter of 30–35 cm and about 10 cm high, an Asiago cheese roundweighs from 8 to 12 kilos. Varying in colour from amber to brown when very mature, the rind is smooth and fine, but very tough.
Asiago cheese is produced in two types, which differ so much in taste and aroma as to seem two different varieties. It is called “pressato” when young and “d'allevo” when mature. The latter falls into one of three categories: Mezzano, Vecchio or Stravecchio (meaning Medium, Mature or Long-aged), according to the length of its ageing process.
Asiago “pressato” is straw coloured with pronounced and irregularly positioned “eyes”: it is produced from full-fat milk with the typical flavour of raw milk, sweet with a slightly acidulous note. Its aroma recalls yogurt and butter. It is ripened for at least 20 days from its production date. It feels soft and resilient to the touch.
The minimum ripening period for Asiago “d’allevo” is 60 days from the last day of its production month. More specifically, that of “Mezzano” is 4-6 months; “Vecchio” over 10 months; “Stravecchio” over 15 months. Its olfactory notes recall leavened products such as bread dough and dried fruit. Its taste gradually becomes more savoury and assertive until it acquires the spicy piquant notes of the Stravecchio version.
HOW IS IT MADE?
Whether raw or pasteurized, the milk must come from two partially skimmed milkings. Once it has been inoculated with lactobacillus or milk starter culture, the milk coagulates with calf rennet at a temperature of 33-37°. The curd is cut into hazelnut or kernel-sized granules (sometimes even smaller) and cooked at 47°. When it is extracted from the boiler, the paste is poured into moulds and subsequently stamped to identify each individual round of cheese. Finally, the rounds are salted in brine.
ASIAGO CHEESE PAIRINGS
A recommended wine pairing is with fragrant red wines such as Cabernet, Teroldego or Marzemino.
Asiago cheese is excellent when teamed up with honey and fresh fruit or – and this is for real gourmets – with elderberry jam and pickled figs. No matter how fresh or mature Asiago is, it makes an ideal ingredient for adding to salads, vegetable dishes, quiches, polenta and fillings for ravioli or tortellinipasta, pizza, fondue and Italian-style omelettes (frittata).
When fresh, Asiago is frequently used in cooking, while the Vecchio and Stravecchio versions are valuable cheeses for enjoying as they are. This cheese should be stored in cling film at a temperature of 8-9 °C. Fresh Asiago will not keep as long as ‘d'allevo’, so it is advisable to use it up quickly. If a d'allevo cheese is long-aged, it is to be stored wrapped in a cloth, even at higher temperatures.