The cheeses of Piedmont are some of the most varied of any region.
Piedmont cheeses are a revelation. Every town and mountain hamlet in this northern Italian region produces their own fantastic fermented milk specialty. Italy, as a whole, is recognized for many superstars like Parmigiano Reggiano, mozzarella, gorgonzola, and provolone. But for variety and quantity of high quality cheeses, Piedmont may be the region to take the blue ribbon.
This is not surprising; Piedmont does, after all, border on the cheese country par excellence, France. Its Alpine foothills and steep slopes enfold many little towns—and mountain cheeses are some of the best, coming from local breeds of sheep, goats, and cattle that forage all summer long in the pristine meadows high, high up. Some of Piedmont’s most excellent specimens, too, come from the rolling hills further south and east in the Langhe, Monferrato, and further afield.
I had a cheese epiphany when I first came to Piedmont. It was only then that I realized how diverse and delicious cheese can be, way beyond the most extensive and gourmet cheese counter at Whole Foods. Like wine, cheese has deep roots to its town and territory. Its aromas and flavors pick up nuances from distinct terroirs, and it can vary year by year, depending on what the animals foraged (if made artisanally).
Here are some of my favorites, the ones I cannot stop nibbling on—which also happen to be Piedmont classics.
Robiola di Roccaverano
Robiola is a class of cheese made from goat’s milk, often mixed with a percentage of cow’s and sheep’s milk and served in fresh rounds or rectangles wrapped in paper or leaves. Generally speaking, it is a bloomy-rind, soft, fresh cheese, but comes in a wide variety of forms, flavors, and aging. Case in point, Robiola di Roccaverano has no rind at all. It is dense and tangy, soft and fresh, made from 100% goat’s milk with herbal and floral notes. When aged, its color blushes a pale rose, “rubeolus,” which is where its name comes from. It is wonderful spread on a panino or crunchy bruschetta, and would pair great with a lightly sweet Moscato d’Asti.
Sheep’s milk Murazzano
Murazzano teeters between being defined as a robiola or toma, and sometimes as its own class of cheese. Though also a fresh, soft cheese, it is very different from Roccaverano. It’s made in the Alta Langa from sheep’s milk, and as it ages the crust grows yellow and the cheese more pungent. I love it with a smear of honey. While more intense than Robiola di Roccaverano, it’s not a sharp, aged cheese and so pairs best with a light, sparkling white wine: try Gavi spumante.
Pungent and crumbly Castelmagno
Castelmagno is an Alpine cheese with a strong, slightly pungent, complex flavor and crumbly texture that becomes velvety smooth when made into one of its iconic dishes: risotto al Castelmagno. And again with the honey—only with Castelmagno, try bitter chestnut honey. It is made in Val Grana and when aged well, becomes subtly marbled (though fresher versions are very good, too). A full-bodied red would go well with this, like a nebbiolo-based Gattinara.
Nutty, savory Bra Duro
Finally, a cheese that lends itself (too well) to bite after just-one-more-bit is Bra Duro. This cheese is made in Bra and its surroundings in the province of Cuneo. It’s either Bra Tenero (young and soft) or Bra Duro (hard and aged), which must be aged six months and can be found aged up to a year or more. The very aged version is called Stravecchio, or extra old; it was once widely used to grate on pasta, the local “Parmigiano.” While very good, I prefer the medium-aged Bra Duro. It is savory, nutty, and has an almost creamy yet toothsome texture—the perfect balance of everything. Again, a full-bodied, tannic red would pair well, such as a Barbaresco; or a passito would be perfect with that nuttiness.