Lately, I’ve been dreaming about the cheeses of Piedmont. Like so many borderlands, this Italian region hugs France and sucks the marrow out of two cultures, fusing the best of both: namely, Italian vigor and French romance. Here, you’ll find operatic young goat cheeses rolled in flower buds, along with oozy Robiolias (think: robust Brie) swathed in leaves – fig, chestnut, or even cabbage.
It’s as if Versace had dressed these wheels.
Piedmont, which means “foot of the mountains,” produces more than 50 varieties of cheese, ten of which are labeled Protected Designation of Origin (DOP), a hard-to-garner marker that ensures quality and distinction.
Some northern Italian rounds, like Fontina (stinky) and La Tur (minxy), are easy to find here because they are not so unusual. Others, like Castelmagno – a craggy sheep’s milk cheese slashed with the occasional blue vein – are total oddballs and a bit pirate-y.
Maybe that’s why I adore cheeses from Piedmont. They’re weird. If the dairy world were a university, Piedmont would harbor theater majors.
Along with exceptional wheels and wedges, Piedmont produces gorgeous wine, risotto-loving Arborio rice, and luxe truffles. Just think of how complex the terroir must be to yield this spectrum of flavors: from cabin-cruiser-sized Barolo and Barbaresco wines to sexy little mushrooms that encircle certain tree roots, like tassels on garters, underground.
Take that same terrain and let ruminants wander amok, then use their milk for cheese – and, well, you’ve got something far lovelier, in my humble opinion, than any gems from the counter at Tiffany’s.
For my Piedmont cheese board, I wanted to capture the region’s abundant creativity and visual glitz, so I selected three cheeses with Oscar-ready exteriors. These are mostly goat’s milk beauties, but you’d never know it. Here’s a peek at their couture:
Caprino Fiorito is enrobed in chamomile buds and violet petals.
Robiola Foglie di Fico comes dressed in a fig leaf cloak.
Testun al Barolo looks like a gladiator in grape-must mesh.
Have you ever seen cheeses dressed in prettier gowns?
This light goat cheese rolled in chamomile and violets needs little adornment, except perhaps a flavorless cracker. Caprino comes from the word Capra, or goat, and Fiorito means “bloom.” Like the best French goat cheese, this Italian variety is airy and balanced, without any goaty brooding in the background. The flowers add a hint of flavor but mostly inspire reverie about meadow picnics and Peter Rabbit books.
Farms across Piedmont produce these biscuit-shaped rounds, and locals love to roll them in regional herbs and seasonal ingredients. Look for Caprino Cremeso Tartufo, a special puck bedecked in truffles.
Serve Caprino Fiorito with Sancerre or a slightly floral white.
Robiola Foglie di Fico
Piedmont is known for a family of young cheeses called Robiolas – downy disks that are often rindless and, thus, leaf-wrapped to keep them fresh and moist. Some, like the wonderful Robiola Bosina (which you see in many cheese cases), have nightie-thin rinds and no leaf wrapping at all. Not all makers go to the trouble of tailoring their offspring in bespoke plant life.
Brie-heads tend to crumple when they discover Robiolas because these creamy Italian cheeses have so much character. They aren’t bold exactly, but they don’t canoodle with wallflowers either. Understand that Robiola is to northern Italy what Brie is to France or Cheddar is to England, which is to say that this cheese is a regional wonder. Stroll through Piedmont’s hill towns, and you’ll meet a slew of artisan Robiola makers – some use goat’s milk, while others prefer cow’s milk or a mixture of the like.
Robiola Foglie di Fico is made from goat’s milk, and the fig leaf robe gives it a sweet, earthy smell. Peel back the wrapping (“the unveil” is half the fun), and you’ll find a runny treat that holds up rather firmly internally, giving you a pair of textures. The taste is milky, fruity, woodsy, and winsomely tangy. Imagine a very refined cream cheese.
With cherry preserves, Robiolas turn into magnificent desserts. Add a glass of sparkling Moscato d’Asti from northern Italy, or hard cider.
Testun al Barolo
Eating Testun is an unusual experience, both in terms of flavor and texture: its crust is made of packed grape skins (and seeds) that are left over from Barolo wine making, so when you bite down you taste both milk and wine. The crunch of the seeds can make you feel like you’ve got a mouth full of granola, but that’s part of the experience.
Washing cheese with spirits is nothing new, but only the northern Italians pack wheels in “must.” The cheese itself, made from a mixture of cow and goat’s milk, is delicate, sweet, slightly crumbly, and by turns granular and creamy on the tongue. If you can’t find Testun al Barolo, look for Ubriaco – a cow’s milk cheese from the Veneto that is soaked in barrels of wine.
It, too, is snappy and boozy. What a treat on a picnic or firelit night.
Serve Testun with a glass of Barolo, of course.