Like the long legs of a tall, olive skinned woman under the warm Sardinian sun, Italy has seduced me, not only with its sultry flavors and lustful textures, but also intellectually, with its long history, rich tradition and iconic culture. However, much of Italy's allure can be attributed to the arousing nature of the country's fabled wines and cheeses.
This Cultured Palate focuses on three cheeses from the north of Italy, because these pairings should be experienced in life at some point. Almost every one of these pairings made me smile and feel carefree. Some of the flavors seemed shy and timid, yet ultimately transcendent. These tastes are as memorable as a first kiss.
It is young and precious, as innocent as a cheese gets. Twelve days into its life we receive the six ounce wheels of La Tur. If cared for properly, around day 14 or 15, it will become extremely ripe, slightly runny beneath the rind. There is no mystery to the success of this cheese. It begins with the purest goat, sheep and cow milk possible and is blended together in classic Piedmont fashion. The cheese is graceful and luxurious, and finds no difficulties standing on its own. The texture of La Tur can be likened to a cloud plucked from the summer sky: light, airy, fluffy. Similar to savory ice cream, the cheese nearly dissolves on the palate, beginning with a creamy roundness from the fat in the sheep and cow milk. It delivers a slight “buckiness” and mild acidity from the goat milk at the mid-palate, but ultimately finishes as it began – creamy and smooth.
My instinct gravitates towards bubbles, but prosecco’s clean, acidic fruit conflicts with La Tur. Franciacorta is a bit too bold and yeasty, pinot bianco a bit too heavy, overwhelming. Arneis, a local Piedmont grape is citrus driven and conflicted, and something demi-sec, such as moscato, too sweet. What I found is a very special wine full of youth and simplicity.
From the town of Varna in the Valle Isarco, within the Trentino-Alto Adige, lies the Abbazia di Novacella, a 12th-century abbey. It is there that an understated and reserved wine maker, Celestino Lucin, produces the elusive match for La Tur. The grape used is kerner, a cross between riesling and a local red varietal, schiava (trollinger in Germany). The wine is delicate on the nose; notes of wild alpine flowers, citrus and honeysuckle intertwine to form quite a bouquet. On the palate, kerner reflects the nose with the floral character present, but not dominating. It has a racy attack, round mid-palate and a finish with a touch of residual sugar reminiscent of a kabinett riesling.
The youthfulness of the cheese and wine dance together at arm’s length, never revealing too much initially, but eventually the fresh bright creaminess of the cheese collides with the round, gentle floral character of the kerner, making a special pair.
Notes on La Tur
Region: Langhe, Piedmont, Italy
Type of milk: Cow, Sheep, Goat (pasteurized)
Age: 12-20 days
Producer: Alta Langa
Similar Cheeses: Rocchetta, Robiola Tre Latte
Wine Pairing: Kerner, Abbazia di Novacella, Valle Isarco, Trentino- Alto Adige, 2007
Similar Wines: Riesling: search for Loosen Bros. “Dr. L” from the Mosel. It does not have the structure of kerner and is a bit more off-dry, but it is a lot of fun with this cheese.
Final Note: The cheese is named after an extinct large bovine with horns that was too violent to domesticate.
Casatica di Bufala
This cheese is a freak. Its sexy character lies in its esoteric style. It’s made from buffalo milk, a type of milk that is dense and naturally high in fat, commonly used for mozzarella in Lombardy. However, two brothers, Bruno and Affio Gritti, had different plans.
The cheese is about 2 1/2 pounds and in the shape of a rectangular log with a bloomy rind that is reminiscent of a fresh button mushroom in taste and smell. The texture is satiny and runny when ripe. On the palate, it is delicate, sweet and the presence of fat is imminent. The finish is remarkable, leaving hints of hay and mushroom behind, only to be swept away by the rich creaminess of the buffalo milk.
My wine of choice is a chardonnay from the Coli Euganei in the Veneto. Round and rich, it is very Burgundian in style. It has a bouquet similar to that of an overly ripe or bruised golden delicious apple framed in oak. Medium bodied, the taste echoes the nose, and while the acidity may not seem high, it is just the right amount to balance out the richness of a wine that has been barrel fermented on its lees for a year. The undertones of minerality are no coincidence. The soil is a mix of pumice from volcanic hills and chalk from30 million-year-old sea bed. All these elements create a complex wine that is full, rich and able to age for a few years.
The pairing is electric. The rich, sweet, smooth texture of the Casatica di Bufala reaches deep and is lengthened by the round ripe apple character of the chardonnay. Biting the rind ignites saltiness and flashes of fresh earth pass through my mind, while the wine counters with its soft acidity. Right before the finish, richness from the wine's oak and the hay-like quality of the cheese arrive together.
Notes on Casatica di Bufala
Region: Lombardy, municipal of Cologno al Serio
Type of milk: Water Buffalo (pasteurized)
Age: around 30 days
Producer: Bruno & Affio Gritti
Similar Cheeses: None. A bloomy rind triple crème like Brillat-Savarin is a stretch. It is substantially richer.
Wine Pairing: Chardonnay, Vignalta Winery, Colli Euganei, 2007
Similar Wines: A nice white Burgundy, preferably from the Côte de Beaune, namely villages including Meursault or something a bit more south, Puligny-Montrachet. Although there are a lot of producers, look for Oliver Leflaive, Joseph Drouhin and Louis Jadot.
Testun al Barolo
Testun al Barolo is elegant and high class with sex appeal. The attraction of Testun al Barolo lies in the anticipation. Like black lace, beneath it lies the fun.
The cheese is from Piedmont and is made from alpine grazing cows and goats. The word “testun” in Cuneo dialect translates into big, hard-headed; stubborn. Once the cheese takes shape, it is covered with nebbiolo grape skins, which are leftover from the production of Barolo wine. It is then aged in small oak barrels, rotated and continually covered for nearly four months. After its “vinotherapy,” the cheese is left to age for an additional three to four months, allowing the flavors to intermingle and come together.
When biting into this cheese, its firm, crumbly and rigid texture reveal nuances at just the right pace. The nebbiolo grape skins on the rind penetrate throughout the cheese, providing light, fruity undertones, offset by the alpine milk used to make it. It is the milk that gives the cheese depth, with hints of chamomile and the essence of anise. Somewhere mid-palate it delivers a brief sharpness similar to that of English farmhouse cheddar, followed by a delicate, peculiar sweetness. It doesn’t overpower with sharpness or fruit, but rather softly stimulates the palate with sensations ranging from sexy to snackable. It finishes smooth, almost with the same profile as when it began, but more subdued and herbaceous. This is one of the most elegant firm cheeses I have had.
Often considered more feminine, softer and sensual than Barolo, Barberesco certainly provides a woman’s touch. The perfect pairing Barberesco is produced by Beni Di Batasiolo, from 2004, a vintage renown for its high quality and classic character. It is incredible and everything I want Barberesco to be. There is a slight rosiness on the nose, dark cherry and plum with a musty, earthy quality. On the palate, it is elegant and settles with bright, clean tannins. It is not quite full bodied, but has a certain plumpness that could be considered as such. The dark cherry and plum found on the nose make their way across the palate, while a slight cigar-like taste slips its way in near the beautiful velvety finish.
I neither want the wine or the cheese to stop this ménage à trois of fruit on fruit action with me. Rolling around in my mouth, the velvety, sensual side of Barberesco softly strokes the fruity firmness of Testun al Barolo. Eventually, the sharpness escalates beyond the wine only for a moment, yielding to the rich, dark cherry and plum character of the wine. Like Testun al Barolo, it finishes where it began: fruity, smooth and complex. The Barberesco has a bit more strength in the end, but my mind continues to turn about the sharp and jammy flavor of the cheese.
Notes on Testun al Barolo
Type of milk: Predominately cow and some goat (pasteurized)
Age: 6-8 months
Producer: Beppino Occelli
Similar Cheeses: None exactly like Testun al Barolo. Try some “drunken” style cheeses, those that have been soaked in red wine. They may not be as complex, but have a fruity quality to them.
Wine Pairing: Beni Di Batasiolo, Barberesco, 2004
Similar Wines: Other Barberescos from Gaja, Paitin or Roagna. If you decide upon a Barolo, which often times is a bit fuller bodied, Tenuta Carretta is my favourite. For a great value try Nebbiolo d’Alba from Rocche Costamagna.
Final Note: The Nebbiolo encrusted rind is edible, but can be austere and bitter, and be careful of the seeds. Also, Testun al Barolo is sometimes made with sheep milk.
[Photo by scraggy & fluffy]
All cheeses available at L'Albatros Brassiere + Bar. Also, be sure to ask for these cheeses at your favorite cheese shop.