CHIAVARI, Italy - The other day I got to thinking about the things I used to bring back from my trips to Italy, and realized most of what I bought came from the Italian grocery stores and food and cheese shops. I would usually find wonderful things that easily fit into my suitcase, which were much more interesting and more appreciated that anything I could ever find in the souvenir shops.
The food shops had things like bags of Arborio rice, the best rice for real Italian risottos and which I could not find at home, hand held graters, ravioli cutters, fun aprons, and of course real Italian cheese. Things are a little different now. Italian products are much more available in all parts of the world, but like Neapolitan coffee and chocolate from Modica, Sicily, some things just taste better here.
Number one buy on my list was Parmigiano Reggiano. It was, and still is, shrink wrapped and easy to pack, and so it made a great gift – especially if I was gifting myself. You can bring home any cheese as long as it is shrink wrapped hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano. But if you find yourself looking longingly at a fresh cheese, like Sicilian burrata, go ahead and buy it along with some bread, a bottle of wine, a little fruit and have yourself a very merry picnic and bring the delicious memory home.
Here are some other types you might want to try while you’re here. They are not in any particular order.
Parmigiano Reggiano – This cheese is probably one of Italy’s most famous. The name kind of hints at the fact that it comes from Parma, but Reggio Emilia, Modena, part of Bologna and part of Mantua can also claim ownership of this popular cows milk cheese. Parmigiano Reggiano is aged for eighteen to twenty-four months and is additive free and worked by hand using the same cheese making techniques that have been used for some seven hundred years.
Bel Paese – Literally means “beautiful country”. This cheese was invented in 1929 by the Galbani Cheese Company in Lombardy. It is made from pasteurized cow’s milk and sold in small discs in almost every grocery store. You can also buy a chuck of Bel Paese in most Italian food shops. Bel Paese is kind of like mozzarella as it has a mild, buttery flavor, but mild and buttery with tang. If you buy the disks you can bring it home and use it in casseroles and on pizzas, or eat it with crackers.
|Pecorino Romano Bronzetto|
Pecorino Romano Bronzetto – This may be the best of the northern Sardinian-made Sardoformaggi Romanos. The ancient cheese was once made in Rome and was given to the legionaries as part of their daily rations. The extra rainfall northern Sardinia provides lush pastures for the sheep to graze in. Bronzetto is dry-salted by hand for two months and then aged for another year. It has a sharp flavor, and not recommended for sissies.
|Pecorino Romano Genuino|
Pecorino Romano Genuino – Often referred to as “Genuino” because of it’s Roman origins. Genuino is more crumbly and grainy than Bronzetto making it an excellent grating cheese.
Pecorino Toscano is part of the same family. There are strict regulations regarding how it is made. Unlike other pecorinos, Toscano is not aged so this young cheese has a flavor that hints of wildflowers, herbs and Tuscan grass.
Burrata – If you like mozzarella you will love burrata. It looks a lot like mozzarella, but it has a creamy butter-cream center, which makes it unique. It comes from the southern region of Puglia and it has a very short shelf life so break out the bread and wine, eat and enjoy and bring the delicious memory home. You’ll probably find it wrapped in a large leaf, and if the leaf is green, the cheese is fresh. If it is not, don’t buy it.
Fiore Sardo – This cheese is made in the hills of Sardinia from unpasteurized sheep’s milk. It is also aged for three months which leaves it slightly salty with a long finish – which means the taste remains in your mouth. This is D.O.P. protected cheese, but then again how could you expect anything else from a cheese named Flower of Sardinia.
Fontina Val d’Aosta – The lucky cows who live in the celestial pastures of Italy’s Aosta Valley, near the border with France, produce the milk used to make this popular cheese. It is aged for 90 days, not long in cheese life, but it is still delicious because the cows eat the wildflowers and herbs from those pastures and they pass along the aromatic flavors in their milk.
Mountain Gorgonzola is a sharp and tangy cheese from Italy’s Lombardy region. Mountain Gorgonzola doesn’t really come from the mountains, but it does have a white interior with attractive streaks of blue. In Italy this cheese is eaten drizzled with honey.
|Pecorino di Sicilia|
Pecorino di Sicilia – Dating back more than 2,000 years, this is an ancient cheese of sheep’s milk from inland Sicily. A tart and citrus-like flavor can be found in the sundried-tomato infused version. Other versions include chopped pistachio nuts and leafy green arugula.
|Umbriaco di Amarone|
Ubriaco al Prosecco – An unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese from Veneto, coated with Proseco grapes must ( a by-product from wine-making). It has a clean, fresh flavor and is a perfect cheese to pair with wine.
Ubriaco al Vino is a semi-soft, pasteurized cow’s milk cheese from Friuli, aged for three months in a blend of Merlot and Cabernet wine must. No other cheese had been produced in this manner and creates a cheese with an unmistakable fruity flavor.
Ubriaco di Amarone – A five month-aged Monte Veronese washed in Amarone; a wine produced by drying grapes before fermentation to concentrate their sugars. This sharp and tangy cheese is also infused with grapey overtones. Umbriaco means ‘drunk’ in Italian, and has been rightly applied to these three wine infused cheeses.
|Veneto d'Estate Vaccino|
Vento d’Estate Vaccino – This Barricato, or wooden barrel-aged cow’s milk cheese from Treviso is buried under hay from the historic mountain of Monfenera during its maturation process. Vento d’Estate Vaccino is known for its barrel-wood, lilac, pear and straw fragrance. It has a rich, savory flavor.