Crescenza Info

Stracchino di Crescenza

As the warm spring winds melt the glacier that is New England, our thoughts here turn to fresh milk and fresh cheese. This Italian cheese, Stracchino di Crescenza, is a wonderful addition to all of the new garden bounty that will soon be on our tables for the next several months.

This cheese, also known simply as Crescenza (and sometimes just Stracchino), is a staple in the Italian kitchen, and I personally think it is probably the ultimate cheese in expressing the natural flavor and aromatics of a good quality milk. Crescenza is rather short lived due to it very high moisture, but that is normally not a big problem once you taste it.

Wonderful, Fresh Cheese

In Italy, the cheese comes from the store in small plastic tubs (to contain its very moist self) or in a VakPak. It is so moist it just wants to 'ooze' out of itself. This is part of the joy of this cheese. It is even moister than the moistest Boconccini, yet it still retains enough structure to be sliced, and yet be easily spreadable.

Many say that it has a mild flavor, but with a good quality milk it is a showcase for the wonderful fresh flavors and aromas from the farm.

This, combined with the balance of lactic flavor from the culture and that wonderful mouthful of moisture, marks it as one amazing cheese in our kitchen lately.

My favorite description for this cheese comes from an online piece in " Italy Magazine" by Carla Passino :
"It tastes as pre-dawn light should: soft beyond softness, enveloping, barely sweet. And just after I have taken in the gentle aroma of milk, just after it coats my mouth, Crescenza shows its mettle with a persistence that speaks of yogurt and grass. Its a triumph of mildness, a proof that less is indeed more, a celebration of barely-there flavours, which cling to the tastebuds with the tenacity of a dying breed."

If this doesn't sell you on making cheese I am tossing in my cheese hat.

Crescenza is best served at room temperature or cooked in a recipe.

It spreads nicely on crackers, crostini or fresh bread with fruit. It also works well melted on grilled sandwiches and in cream sauce over pasta. For something different, use Stracchino in common recipes like macaroni and cheese, quiche and omelets, either by itself or mixed with other cheeses.

Perhaps just add a little olive oil and cracked pepper or favorite herb mix, maybe small bits in your salad as you would with chevre, even adding it to your eggs or polenta just before the final stirring.

In Italy it can be found on the table just plain or spread on a fresh baked slice of bread. It might also show up under the folds of a focaccia as small little melted pillows. But best of all, just eat it!

Yesterday for lunch, it was the cheese for my Turkey sandwich.

A Bit of History

The cheese has been produced in northern Italy in the Provinces of Lombardia, Piedmont, and Veneto. There are no records, but the cheese is thought to have been made ever since the migration of cows began from the valley to the alps and back again. When they returned to the valley, the cows were tired and the milk was richer from their efforts. Also during the winter months, the cheese was made in villages and production to table could be simply a matter of days. There was no big effort to dry the cheese and preserve for any long time period.

The name 'Stracchino' is derived from the Italian word 'stracca', which means 'tired' in English. It is said that the cheese made from the milk of tired cows moving seasonally up and down the Alps, is richer in fats and more acidic in nature.

The origin of the name Crescenza comes from the Italian ‘crescere’, which translated means ‘to grow’ and refers to the spreading of the cheese as it ripens and softens more. This also may refer to the tendency of the cheese to swell (like rising bread) and even split when left at warmer temperatures.

Variations in Style

  • Traditionally this was only made in the winter months when the cows came back to the valleys but eventually this became a year round production. In Italy, it is still possible to find a few of these traditional producers today. Many of these smaller scale productions still maintain a seasonal variation:
    • In summer the cheese tends to be a bit sturdier and holds it shape better and the fat will be higher.
    • In winter the cheese shows to be a creamier version and yet a bit leaner.
    • These are often found in shops as large cheeses that are portion cut to order.
  • Much of today's cheese is no longer made seasonally, but year round, and the operations have become more commercial and sold in supermarkets in plastic wraps, much of it approaching fat free from herds that never see the pasture.
  • Today in the USA, there are a few producers that do produce good examples of this cheese. Among those to look for are Bellweather Farm and BelGioso Cheese.
  • Making this cheese at home for yourself will give you the opportunity to use the best quality milk you can find and control the moisture and final outcome of the cheese. I have always found that you can make a much better cheese than you can usually buy commercially when spending the time to source exceptional milks.
  • When allowed to age, Crescenza develops an addictive pleasant tanginess and creamy softness.
  • The basic process for making this cheese is essentially the same as making Taleggio and Gorgonzola, the difference being more moisture being removed and longer aging for these other two.

The Evolution of my Crescenza Guideline

I have always been in love with any cheese that expresses the natural quality of milk, and this cheese was no exception.

Much of what I have tasted in Italy, however, has been a bit bland due to the large scale industrial production and the wholesale sourcing of milk from large herds. BUT, I just had to wonder what this would be like when made from the best quality milk. As I began looking for process details, I first ran across several published guides produced here in the USA that gave me an idea of process but when I began checking with my Italian sources I began seeing some very big differences:

  1. The milk was heated more initially and there was no sequential cooking of the curd. The Italian recipes also had minimal stirring and a larger final cut size.
  2. The Italian advice was to add all salt to the cheese milk before adding the culture!? ... This will essentially slow the acid development over a much longer period and hence limit the whey running off (this cheese is all about final moisture).
  3. My American guides all pointed to using an aromatic Mesophilic culture, whereas all of the Italian sources advised using a Thermophilic culture and specifically a European style yogurt culture with a balance of thermophilus and bulgaricus. This is what gives the cheese that beautiful soft texture due to the focus of the bulgaricus on reducing proteins in short order.

So with the info gathered I have spent several months getting this cheese guide to where I want it. This was time well spent and judging by my tasting communities enthusiasm, another very worthwhile project .