Taleggio, a True Favorite
I am often asked what my favorite cheese is and find this a tough choice to make. However, I think that Taleggio is one of my top favorites and one of the great gifts to us from Italy. This is a cheese for which I have been researching and refining my process over the past several years.
This is truly one of my all time favorites and, by the way it disappears so fast from my cheese boards here, it is also a big favorite of my friends!
Where is Taleggio From
In the mountains of northern Italy, tucked into the area between the famous lakes, just north of the modern industrial area of the Padano (Po River Valley) near Bergamo, lies a remote area still working with their traditional agriculture.
This is the Val Taleggio, where only recently, modern roads have made things more accessible.
These old traditions only exist in modern times due to the difficulty in accessing this high mountain valley and the fact that the government and people of Italy have developed a new respect for these "Old Ways." The people support this and the government assists.
One of the great contributions from this region has been the cheese 'Taleggio'
The History of Taleggio Cheese
The story of this cheese begins in the high mountain valley for which the cheese has been named, Val Taleggio. It is located in the Bergamo province of Lombardia, just east of Milan and north of Bergamo.This has been produced since the 9th century, although some people do claim the existence of this cheese goes as far back as the Roman presence in these mountains.
This cheese was first documented in 1200, when it was called 'Stracchino', meaning a tired cheese. The origin of the name 'Stracchino' relates to the Lombard dialect word 'stracch', which means tired or exhausted. It relates to the condition of the herd upon finally reaching the plain after their long stay on the Alpine pastures. The cows, although worn out by the long journey, were still able to produce milk fit for making cheese, and this cheese they called 'Stracchino'.
It is here that the tradition of 'Bergamini' (of Bergamo) was started -- typical characters of the high meadows such as herdsmen, breeders and keepers of the traditional cheese processing rules have been handed down over the generations. They were experts in turning the milk produced in the summer alpine pastures directly into Taleggio, a soft cheese made with whole cows milk, that has a sweet and delicate taste with aromatic hints.
It is important to note that the cheese of the past, made on the higher Alpine pastures, needed to be larger, drier, and longer aged cheese to preserve them due to the rigors of the long and rough trip that would take several days into the more populated valley where the markets were. This would have precluded the production of this cheese, except in small quantities in these high pastures.
This Taleggio reference was originally due more to the high mountain town being the point from which the herds traveled to and from at the beginning and end of the summer months, rather than the place it was made in large quantities. During their journey, they needed to be milked and the inhabitants of this valley began to produce cheese that, once matured in "caves" or at their farms, could be exchanged for other products or commercialized.
The most accessible of these lower valleys was Valsassina, near Lake Como. The important track to Valsassina was through a very steep gorge that included many 'Casere,', which are natural caves cut by gorges that feed in air at the constant temperature of between 37 and 46°F, with a humidity of 85-90%. This is perfectly suited for the aging of these cheeses.
As time moved forward, the access to and from these high pastures improved with better roads, and the popularity of soft cheese increased. The cheese began to be made more on the high meadows closer to the grazing animals, and then transported to the caves and markets of Valsassina. It was, and still is, considered that these Taleggio from the mountains were the richest and the best.
Today, the cheese is still made, much as it has been for hundreds of years,on the high pastures. The process and skills are still handed down from the elders to the young.
Traditionally, the best herds adapted for the region have been the 'Bruno Alpina' similar, if not the same, as the Brown Swiss. The true key to maintaining these old ways is in passing the torch to the younger generations.
As the industrialization of the Po River Valley progressed during the late 19th and 20th centuries, many of the larger producers began producing on a much larger scale over a broader area in the lowlands of this region, and the pasteurization of the milk became accepted on the larger scale as well. However, many of these cheeses were still transported to the special caves in Valsassina, for the proper aging character.
The current name of 'Taleggio' for this cheese has only been used since the early 1900's and until that time was simply called 'Stracchino'.
What is Taleggio Cheese
Taleggio is a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese, made both commercially in the valleys and on small mountain farms. The washed rind is thin and moist and the color vary from rose to orange. As it ages, it may develop a layer of white and grey mold, all very edible and adding to the character. It is quite aromatic, yet mild in flavor, and features some tangy, meaty flavors with a fruity finish. The texture of the cheese is moist-to-oozy, with a very pleasant melt-in-the-mouth feel. The combination of the soft texture, pungent aroma, and buttery flavors has proven to be a winner, especially when spread on fresh crusty bread.
Traditionally, it is formed in a square mold of 7-8 inches and 2-3 inches high.
Different Variations of Taleggio
Today, Taleggio is largely made on a grand scale in the valley of the Po River from higher production breeds and pasteurized milk.
- Raw milk versions can still be found produced in the mountains on summer pastures. I find that many of these cheeses made in high mountain pastures from raw milk are using the name 'Stracchino' again. Sometimes they are also called 'All Antica' meaning 'old ways.' These can be much more complex in flavor.
- A fresher, younger, unripened version of this cheese can be found in this area as 'Robiola', and should not to be confused with the softer version of the same name found in the Langhe area of Piemonte, south of Torino. These cheeses have a more acid, fresh flavor and less ripened body. Little to no color has developed on the surface.
- I have also seen several 'Stravecchio' versions or extra-aged and brine washed with much more complex flavor, a dry crust and firm paste.