I've been gone for the past month, traveling in Italy, England, and France. What I've known about the New York cheese scene was only reaffirmed: we have the world's best cheeses at our fingertips, excellent cheese shops with knowledgeable cheesemongers, and access to some of the most unique new cheeses around.
But sometimes, there's nothing like getting away. Here, my first installment from abroad: my findings on cheese in Italy, plus my favorite cheese while I was there.
I use the phrase "the cheese world" a lot. But only after being in it do I realize how undefinable this term actually is: with new cheese after new cheese in every market, cheeses in shapes and colors that I'd never seen before, and countless styles and make methods, it's a vast place that's impossible to generalize in a single turn of phrase.
What struck me most in my travels was how each country really keeps it in the family. That is, French cheeses are in France, Italian cheeses are in Italy, English cheeses are in England. Indeed, Europeans are the original pioneers of eating locally, perhaps most evident in Italy.
I stayed in Italy for nearly three weeks, in the South only, on the Amalfi coast and in Puglia. Hot on the brain was burrata, since it hails from Puglia, and I expected to see it everywhere. While it wasn't hard to come by-- walk into any latteria or alimentaria and there it would be-- it still wasn't as prevalent as mozzarella, mozzarella di bufala, and cacciocavalo or provolone, those ubiquitous Southern greats. And I certainly didn't see burrata served with oysters, which I'd always heard was traditional, and which I'd always thought strange, not only because I imagined it would make an odd combination, but because Italians consider the mixing of fish and cheese practically sacrilegious.
Surprisingly, I didn't even see much Parmigiano Reggiano, perhaps because I was in fish country. I imagine that because Italians use Parmigiano Reggiano so much for cooking, I'd have found it more prevalent in the meat-centric regions atop pastas and other dishes.
Ironically, however, one of the best meals I had was a plate of cozze gratinate, or gratineed mussels: unabashedly cheesy! When I asked the chef about his blatant use of cheese and fish, he admitted it was unconventional but threw his hands up in a "but who really cares if it's so delicious" kind of way. He confided in me that he uses a mix of cacciocavallo and a hard sheep milk cheese. Fortunate was I to taste his departure from tradition.
Italy may have had the least amount of diversity in its cheeses, at least from what I saw. Gorgonzolas, robiolas, and pecorinos were everywhere, as was ricotta salata and taleggio, but I didn't see cheeses that were experimental departures from the country's classic cheeses, as I saw in France and England. Markets pretty much showcased the same Italian cheeses again and again, reflective of a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality.
Italians are as proud as can be of their food traditions, and they're perfectly fine sticking to the cheeses that have served them so well for hundreds of years. Italian cheeses are workhorses: they're not delicate, or even nuanced, in the way that French cheeses are. They're just not. Most Italian cheeses are primarily of the "table cheese" variety, meant for throwing atop pizza, grating over pasta, and stuffing ravioli, crespelle, or tortelloni. You won't find Italians savoring small wedges of various types on a cheese plate for dessert, as you would in France. But you'll see them indulging in cheese-laden dishes of food, which in themselves are nuanced and refined.
What could easily fall under the definition of those adjectives was my favorite cheese in all my weeks in Italy: a simple piece of fior di latte mozzarella, grilled in lemon leaves and served with bread. It's a specialty along the Amalfi coast, and I don't know why it's not prevalent all over. To make, it couldn't be more simple: enclose a piece of mozzarella in the largest lemon leaf you can find. Throw onto a grill over indirect flame and grill until the leaves just begin to char and the mozzarella oozes. It's insane just how much the lemon flavor permeates the cheese, making it into a flavor giant of its former self. A glass of local Falanghina white didn't hurt, either.
Stay tuned next week and the week after for findings from England and France!
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an Assistant TV Chef and food stylist on The Martha Stewart Show.
Related: The Cheesemonger Meets the Winemonger: A Cheese and Wine Pairing Primer
(Images: Nora Singley)