I often look through my cheese drawer for cheese column inspiration. If it's full, I've got a lot to draw on. But it's often the same couple of cheeses that I've already written about, my absolute favorites or my personal staples.
Last night, I scrounged around, and quickly overlooked a certain cheese that falls into both of those categories, convinced that I'd written about it before. But when I searched the site, there was nothing to be found, except for mention after mention after mention of why I think this cheese is so great.
I always keep it on hand because it's just that good to cook with; I swear it has transformative qualities when it's heated. But it's also one of the best cheeses to just eat, straight-up. And not just any cheese can multitask with such palatal success.
So... what is this IT of a cheese, anyway?!
But first, let me get one thing clear. I'm talking about real Fontina, from the Val D'Aosta region of Italy (many versions are Italian imitations), made with raw, high-quality cow milk from a traditional recipe, and aged for three months or more, a critical enhancer of flavor. With no shortcuts, this cheese can make its way easily from cheese board to cheese recipe.
Other fontinas you'll find subpar at best, and they're fine, in a pinch, for cooking. But I've always felt that cooking with cheese is like cooking with wine: if you're going to use it in a recipe, it should be good enough to consume plain. So be sure to look for Fontina Val D'Aosta or Fontina Valdostana, two trusted brands.
These fontinas are actually considered relatives of authentic Gruyere. Made in the valleys of the Valle D'Aosta in Northwest Italy, their cheesemaking tradition harks back to other cheeses made in mountainous communities (like Gruyere). Flavor-wise, they're similar in terms of nuttiness, but I'd say that Fontina is a bit more mild, less lingering on the palate. But there's an intensity behind those subtle notes. Interestingly enough, Fontina is a washed-rind cheese, which if you think about it as you taste, makes sense. Fontina has some stink to it! Pleasantly odorous, it tastes toasty, too, like a deeply golden slice of toast. (Which, by the way, is a great vehicle for its melted incarnation.)
Semi-soft to semi-firm in texture (depending on the exact age), Fontina makes for a fine slicing cheese. Small holes throughout the paste offer a bit of an interesting interruption to an otherwise smooth wedge. I love a piece on a cheese plate because it's easy to cut, and the rind isn't too imposing. Fontina is excellent with dried dark fruits like dates, raisins, and figs, as well as chocolate, port, or sherry. Because it's a little on the funky side, sweet accompaniments are nice contrasts.
When cooked, Fontina goes gooey. Smoother than cheddar and more silky than a mountain cheese, it makes one of the better melting cheeses around. I seriously love it in eggs, in mac n' cheese, as a major component of fondue, or even as a soup. All of its savory intensity is multiplied by a million when it hits heat.
You can find Fontina at any good cheese counter, too, which is why it's so great to have as a trusty staple. And even if you find it in the way back of your cheese drawer, unattended to and forgotten, I've found that it's pretty forgiving.
• You can find Fontina Val D'Aosta at Artisanal Cheese for $19.50/lb or at Whole Foods for $17.50/lb.
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 on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Image: Artisanal Cheese)