Provolone Valpadana – String cheese from Valpadana
Provolone Valpadana DOP cheese is known throughout the world. There are many imitations and the origins are contested. Throughout Europe and some parts of North America Provolone cheese is used on pizza instead of Mozzarella. While Mozzarella is a fresh cheese, best if consumed within days of production, Provolone is an aged cheese. Before reaching the store it ages for 3 to 12 months and has a considerable shelf life. The method of production erroneously leads many to think that Provolone is a Southern Italian cheese but the truth is far more complex and 1000 years of history play their role.
In 300 BC the Romans arrived in Lombardia. Until that time the great plains of the Valpadana, from Milan to Bologna, were forests. The Romans gave land to the legionnaires, heads of the Roman armies, in Lombardia to compensate for their loyalty and to create a first line of defense from invading armies. The Legionnaires changed the face of the land, clearing sections of the forest for farming. This process of transforming the forests to great farms continued after the fall of the Roman Empire. The ensuing Greco-gothic wars and the invasion of the Lombards reduced the cleared lands to wasteland. In 1100 AD the Pope established monasteries throughout northern Italy. The Monks began an aggressive project to reclaim the lands. The abundant water from the rivers and natural springs in the plains created a flourishing agricultural based economy.
The Monks began raising Dairy Cattle and over the next 200 years the cheeses of the Valpadana became famous throughout the world. The economic expansion created a new breed of entrepreneurs. The businessmen figured out that they could allow farmers to produce the milk while they specialized in just making cheese. By the end of the Renaissance, in the late 1600s, cattle and cheese were the primary economies of the Valpadana. In the 1700s further specialization took place separating the dairy from the cattle. The Dairy would process the milk and the farmers would produce the milk.
By the 1800s the Valpadana was the most efficient region for dairy based products because of the significant production of Raw and Processed milk. Because of the availability of the raw material, milk, cheese makers from all over Italy moved their businesses to the Valpadana, including cheese makers from Campania.
The cheese makers from Campania used a different process to make their cheese. It included pulling the milk paste instead of pressing. The production process is the reason Mozzarella and Provolone are considered string cheeses. When the cheeses melt they hold together creating long strings that become thinner and thinner instead of breaking off in chunks. In the 1800s, the southern Italian cheese artisans were able to convince their employers to knead and pull the cheese instead of using the traditional method. Thus, Provolone was born. It is native to the Valpadana but it ancestors are surely southern Italian.
Do not be fooled, Provolone Valpadana is only produced in the plains from Milan to Udine. There is also a Provolone cheese made in the areas around Naples called the “Provolone del Monaco.” If it comes from anywhere else it is a fake. Even when produced in these regions there is a difference between the industrial crap and true Provolone. Provolone will be in its traditional form. The traditional shapes are large Salami, Pear or Melon, truncated cone (for sizes above 100 lbs) and the wine bottle. Your Deli should have the Pear/Melon shaped Provolone.
There are also two basic types of Provolone: mild and spicy.
The Mild Provolone is considered sweeter and will not age more than 3 months. The Spicy will age at least 3 months and will have a “bit of a bite”. Either version may be smoked, indicated as “Affumicata”.
Provolone is great both as a primary ingredient in Italian recipes and as a standalone meal. Wine is perfect with Provolone and the best combinations would include:
1) Wines that come from the same area as the Provolone. This is because the cow’s milk absorbs the same minerals from the plants it eats as the grapes absorb from the ground.
2) A contrasting wine. For example a spicy wine with a mild Provolone.
3) Young and fruity wines, Novello, Barbera, Valcalepio etc. with mild Provolone. Aged and structured wines, like Amarone, Valpolicella, Refosco, and Barbaresco with aged Provolone.
Tags: Italian Cheese Provolone Italian String Cheese Gourmet Food Food and Wine Travel Italy