Salvatore Scarpino, maitre d' of Travertino, Delhi 's classiest Italian restaurant at The Oberoi, shepherds his cheese collection like you would protect your priciest diamond. He doesn't even divulge the name of the family-run Milanese store that has been in the business of selling speciality cheeses since 1873.
That's where Salvatore sourced his block of Castelmagno, which Chef Tommasso Maddalena stuffed into a bignola (shoe pastry) and served with chocolate sauce to Italian President Carolo Azeglio Ciampi at a lunch held in his honour by Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, Chairman of Fiat and President of Ferrari.
“To make good cheese,” reflects the maitre d', “you need a mountain, fresh air and fine grass.” Castelmagno benefits from all three, but the rare cheese, fears Chef Paolo Gagliardi of Park Hyatt, Milan , may soon go out of production because of European Union regulations. Gagliardi brought five kilos of this cheese, which is produced in three small Alpine towns in Northern Piedmont , for a food promotion at La Piazza, Hyatt Regency New Delhi.
“The unique flavour of this cheese originates in the grass that grows in a production area that's no more than 20 square kms,” explained Gagliardi, whose jumbo ravioli stuffed with Castelmagno cheese served with stewed radicchio sauce and rosemary was the high point of the promotion. “It's very hard to find these rare kinds of cheese in stores, so I drove up to Castelmagno to buy my requirements from a producer,” Gagliardi added.
For a wandering gourmand, cheeses can be both tantalising and mystical. Much of the mystery is because of their sheer number. In France alone, estimates vary from 324 (remember General Charles de Gaulle's famous observation to Sir Winston Churchill on the difficulty of governing a country with so many cheeses?), to 450, to 750. Salvatore reckons Italy has over 500 varieties of cheese. The worldwide total, reckons the Oxford Companion to Food , must be around 1,500 – “without counting many nameless types made by small farmers and herdsmen.”
Salvatore has some of these in his collection. Like the Sottocenere from Veneto , which is aged in barrels topped up with acacia ash (the maitre d' insists you have to eat the ash to appreciate the flavour of the cheese), and flavoured with black truffles. Or the Sogliano, which is aged in a unique way in hollowed-out marble blocks between August and November, and released only on November 25. Having these cheeses is an experience you can't repeat in a hurry. Only a fortunate few, though, can claim to have tasted all the 1,500-odd cheeses produced around the world. For those who aren't that lucky, I've my personal list of a dozen cheeses that we must have before we die.
Appenzell is a Swiss cheese which takes its name from the canton where it has been made continually since the eighth century. It's made from whole pasteurised milk, but before being left to mature the rind is washed with a spiced white wine or cider. The cheese has a brownish rind and a golden-yellow interior with some small holes or ‘eyes'. It is firm but elastic and has a flavour which develops from mildly fragrant to moderately strong as the cheese ages.
The Brie that we know is a mass-produced industrial product, but Meaux, a city to the east of Paris , is where you get the Real McCoy. Rich, mild and creamy, runny when it's fully rip, Brie de Meaux is called the King of Cheeses and the Cheese of Kings. Anyone who has had the world's most-loved soft cheese would agree with the sentiment.
The original home of Camembert , another French soft cheese now produced worldwide, is the village of the same name belonging to the Vallee d'Auge in the department of Orne. Camembert is produced using a technique developed by a certain Marie Harel at the end of the 1700s . It was Napoleon III who had decreed in the mid-1800s that the cheese be called Camembert, but it was only after the development of the chipboard cheese-box in 1880, in which it continues to be sold, that it was permitted to be dispatched beyond France .
Cheddar , the famous hard cheese that borrows its name from a village in Somerset, England, where it was originally made, is matured for a considerable time – “a year to eighteen months if it is to be savoured at its best,” according to the Oxford Companion to Food . For Queen Victoria 's wedding celebrations, two villages in Somerset combined to produce a monstrous Cheddar whose diameter was over 9 feet and weighed 567 kilos. Its record of being the world's weightiest cheddar was broken in 1964 when an American Cheddar that was over 28 times larger was produced in Wisconsin , America 's milk bowl. It weighed 15,190 kilos and took 43 hours to produce.
Britain 's oldest-known cheese, Cheshire (unlike Cheddar, which now denotes primarily a production process) must be made in its region of origin, which is around Chester , the county town. It's a large, drum-shaped cheese that typically weighs 30 kilos and is ripened for six months. The texture is crumbly but not moist, and the flavour is mild and slightly acidic. The cheese-makers of Cheshire , Massachusetts , started the tradition of presenting mammoth cheese to incoming presidents of the United States , but they cannot lay claim on the name and reputation of the original.
Talk about Dutch cheese and the first name that comes to your mind is Edam , named after a small port north of Amsterdam . Instantly recognisable by its red wax coating (the tradition dates back to the 16 th century when merchants would rub the Edam meant for export with rags soaked in vermilion dye), this spherical, pale yellow cheese also comes in green-waxed (with chopped fresh herbs), mahogany-coloured (with peppercorns) and orange-waxed (with cumin) versions. Mature Edam , kept six months before sale, comes in a black wax jacket.
The famous Swiss cheese with large holes, Emmental takes its name from that of the Emmen Valley near Bern . Genuine Swiss Emmental is marked ‘ Switzerland ' in red on the rind, which is the only way you can differentiate it from imitators. French Emmental came into existence when some Swiss cheese-makers crossed the border into France , but as the Swiss like to say, “Anyone can make the hole, but only the Swiss can make the cheese.”
The best known of Greek cheeses, feta today is made in places like Denmark , America and Australia . But many connoisseurs regard the Bulgarian ewe's milk feta the best of all. Traditionally, this soft and salty cheese is made from sheep's milk or sheep's and goat's milk mixed, but now cow's milk is also used.
Gorgonzola , which has been traditionally made in a village by that name near Milan , is with some justification regarded as one of the three great blue cheeses. The others are Stilton, which English gentlemen love to order with their post-prandial port, and Rocquefort, the French cheese that is ranked among the most expensive in the world. Gorgonzola's distinguishing blue (or greenish veins) are produced by a Penicillium mould. The cheese used to be ripened in cold, windy caves near Gorgonzola for a full year, but modern manufacturing methods have speeded up the process.
Normally, Gorgonzola is aged for about 100 days, but Salvatore's platter includes a piquant version that is left to mature for 200 days. Pack this Gorgonzola into ravioli and experience an explosion of flavours when you bite into one.
The principal Dutch cheese, which is named after a city in South Holland , Gouda accounts for over half the total production in the Netherlands , although it's made in the same way as an Edam and has a similar flavour. Gouda , the city, retains its Kaaswaag, the weigh-house for cheese, and wagon-loads of smooth, pale yellow cheese are still sold there every Thursday.
The finest and best known of all Swiss cheeses, Gruyere owes is fame mainly to being one of the three cheeses that goes into the making of a fondue, the other two being Emmental and raclette or Appenzell. Real Swiss Gruyere has ‘ Switzerland ' stamped in red all over the flat faces of its broad wheels, which weigh 35-40 kilos. The French, however, have a good reason to call some of their cheeses by that name – Gruyere de Comte and Gruyere de Beaufort are two well-known examples – because the village of Gruyere is barely on the Swiss side of the border between France and Switzerland , which didn't mean much in the Middle Ages.
Parmesan, or Parmigiano Reggiano , is the most famous of all Italian grating cheeses, the others being pecorino and Asiago, which add flavour and zest to pasta dishes, polenta and minestrone around the world. The Italians, who have fought very hard to protect the name for the cheese produced only in Parma and Reggio Emilia, are happier having pieces of this grainy (or grana ), matured cheese with their favourite red wine – a Barolo maybe or a Super Tuscan.
Life's too short for us not to succumb to temptations. So the next time you're travelling, don't just wonder which cheese to buy.