Thursday, October 26, 2006

Asiago – When Cheese Becomes a Work of Art

Born in the high planes of Vicenza, Trento and parts of Treviso and Padova, Asiago is an antique cheese that has adapted and modernized over the centuries. During the first millennium AD the fertile planes and valleys of the Vicentino territory were grazed by herds of Sheep. The Sheep were necessary to provide the quality wools for the local industry. True to nature the shepherds were not about to let the milk go to waste. They developed a method to conserve the quality of the milk without the bulk. The resulting cheese was similar to Pecorino prevalent in other areas of the peninsula. Over the next 500 years Asiago was well known as a primary market for its fine wools and unique cheese.

Progress cannot be stopped and by 1500 AD the sheep had given way to cows. The cattle grazed lands that could also provide hay and straw. The dominance of the wool market faded as the Serenissima lost power and cow milk was now used to create Asiago Cheese. Modernization took Asiago cheese to another level over the next 100 years. The cheese makers began pressing the forms allowing the cheese to be aged just 20 days. Asiago was an aged cheese, requiring 4-6 weeks before it could be consumed.

Often my visitors in Italy comment about the different taste of beef in Italy from the United States. In the US just about every piece of beef has the same taste while in Italy it changes from region to region. The primary reason is that the animals consume different grasses, each area has a different mineral make-up as does the water and the air. While this may not seem important to the novice it is a primary differentiating factor not only in cheeses and meats but also in wine. Italy, and now the European Union, protect the geographical denomination of alimentary products. In other words, you cannot make Asiago cheese anywhere, except in the high planes of northern Italy. This protects the quality and the taste. So, if you see Asiago cheese from California or Wisconsin, it may be great cheese but it is not Asiago.

While Asiago comes in two forms, fresh and aged, they are very similar in taste. Both are sweet and encompassing but the aged cheese has a bit of acidity absent in the fresh, or pressed, version. Asiago should never be bitter. The general flavors of yogurt, butter and warm milk are immediately released biting into cheese. The aged version will have a stronger odor than the pressed cheese. The consistency of the fresh is flexible and pliable while the aged version is compact although it should not crumble. The aged cheese will develop tones of walnuts and exotic fruits over the years.

Cheeses in general, and in particular Asiago, should be consumed at room temperature. It is a great compliment to vegetable casseroles and mushroom soups and sauces.

To accompany Asiago I would suggest:

Fresh or Pressed - Valpolicella classico, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Biferno rosato, Franciacorta spumante brut.

Aged – Valpolicello Rosso, Valcalepio Rosso, Refosco, Franciacorta Rosso, and for a very aged Asiago, Amarone would be a great choice.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love to put asiago cheese in my soup! This is probably my favorite cheese right now.

2:35 AM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

Jennifer Your intuition is impressive. Raffaella is working on her version of an antique recipe for Mushroom soup with Asiago. Probably next week. Today's project is Onion soup with Fontina!

9:18 AM

Blogger Tracie P. said...

when is cheese NOT a work of art?

1:33 PM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

Cara Tracie b. I am glad to see you are having a bit more time to dedicate to your blogging friends.

I also love cheese but you have to admit that some of the industrial products (even in Italy) can be pretty boring.

I received an email from some guys down in your region about an agriturismo making provolone. On my next trip I think I will pay them a visit.

1:53 PM


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