Last month I was lucky enough to go on a whirlwind trip to Italy.
For three and a half days, I had the opportunity to try an amazing amount of Italian specialties.
I went as part of an arts festival in Piedmont, and the main part of the festival took place in the beautiful hilltop village of Barolo. Every day we were dropped off near the town and strolled in through the narrow laneways until we reached the square at the top of the village. The view of the vineyard-covered hills surrounding Barolo was a pretty fabulous way to start the day.
During the course of this action-packed weekend I had the chance to try some amazing cheeses from Piedmont and speak to some cheesemakers. A few different makers presented their cheeses, and I had the chance to finally ask someone “in the know” what Robiola means. It is a strange Italian word that seems to describe a lot of different cheeses of different styles. I was vindicated to learn from this nice fellow that Robiola really doesn’t mean anything specific. Now I know! There are one or two Piedmont cheeses that I really love already, but one I hadn’t had for ages was Castelmagno. During the course of the festival I had the great pleasure of trying Castelmagno from a few different makers. That perhaps doesn’t sound amazing since I was in the area it is made, but even within Italy this cheese is quite rare.
Castelmagno is considered a mountain cheese, although it is nothing like the Swiss or French mountain cheeses we are used to. It is made in two clearly marked versions. The slightly more common “prodotto della Montagna” cheeses are marked with a blue label. These cheeses are made in the mountains with milk obtained from cows grazing in the mountains. The Alpine version, a rare sighting, is labelled “di Alpeggio” and has a green label. These special alpine cheeses are made while the animals are grazing in the mountains above 1000 meters.
Piemontese cows are the main source of the milk for this unique cheese, but the DOP also states that the cheese must have a minimum of 5% and a maximum of 20% goat or sheep milk in every batch. Although Piemontese cows are the common source of milk in area there are other breeds allowed. I spoke to one cheesemaker who uses Montbéliarde cows for his production. Montbéliarde are the breed commonly used in the Jura area of France and their milk is used for making Comté.
Castlemagno has a very special taste and texture. Because of the small amounts of milk produced daily (due to the small amount of animals that most farms have) they keep the curds in the whey for a day or two before forming the cheese. This process causes the curd to have a very brittle texture. The cheese has a great natural crust and often has streaks of natural blue near the crust. When you cut into the cheese you can see by the way it crumbles that the paste is very different from most mountain cheeses. The texture of the cheese seems a little dry, and once you taste it you get an amazing burst of tangy, almost lemony flavours right away. The taste finishes with a little sharpness and sometimes can taste a little like blue, even though you don’t necessarily see any blue veining.
Castelmagno is used in many local recipes, and its amazing flavour brings a bright intense taste to many dishes. I had it in a stuffed squash blossom that was amazing! You might see it in your local area from time to time and you should definitely try it if you travel to Italy.