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Italy’s new generation of experimental cheesemakers

With around a thousand types made up and down the country, Italy certainly has plenty to entice cheese lovers. And the world has come running. Patrick McGuigan lifts the cloth on just a few of the best producers in the land

Words by Patrick McGuigan

italian cheese
The Collection
Mozzarella, Parmesan, Taleggio and Gorgonzola make way for artisanal varieties in modern Italian cheesemaking

Close your eyes and think of an Italian cheese. Chances are you’re now picturing a ball of mozzarella or a lump of Parmesan in your mind’s eye. These two cheeses have dominated Italian exports to the UK for decades, along with a small supporting cast of familiar names, such as Gorgonzola and Taleggio. But something else is fermenting in the world of formaggi italiani, and it’s not just the milk. As with wine, most of Italy’s big-name cheeses are protected by powerful appellations, known as protected denominations of origin (PDOs), that establish where and how cheeses must be made. But a new generation of experimental cheesemakers is turning its back on collective schemes, instead opting to go it alone with unique creations that are changing perceptions of Italian cheese along the way.

lavialattea ol sciur blue cheese
Ol Sciur from Lombardy’s Lavialattea, a blue with a fruity, floral rind

Lombardy cheese company Lavialattea (‘The milky way’) has been at the forefront of avant-garde cheeses since 1997. It was set up by Roberto and Valentina Facchetti in Lombardy, the home of Gorgonzola and Taleggio, and the couple chose to plot a different path by making cheese with raw goat’s milk.

Aided by their son Lorenzo, they currently produce 20 tonnes of cheese a year in a dizzying array of boundary-bending styles – from reworked versions of long-forgotten local cheeses (one is encrusted in ground coffee), to Ol Sciur, a 12kg goat’s blue with an edible rind of berries and rose petals. In 2017, the Facchettis created a squidgy, square sheep’s cheese with a pungent washed rind called Quintano. It went on to be named Best Artisan Cheese on the planet at the World Cheese Awards in 2019.

‘There is more excitement in Italian cheese the past ten years,’ says Lorenzo. ‘Many local products, which for quantity reasons do not fall under PDOs, have taken on new commercial appeal, leading producers to innovate by adding ingredients, ageing cheeses in different ways, rediscovering old cheesemaking methods and combining them with new techniques.’

Social media has played its part, Lorenzo adds, with younger cheesemakers picking up on global food trends on Instagram. ‘The social [media] world gives producers and consumers the opportunity to “travel” virtually, bringing back ingredients, shapes and colours to their home markets.’

A new generation of experimental cheesemakers is turning its back on appellations

At Quattro Portoni, another innovative cheesemaker in Lombardy, the Gritti family has carved a niche making cheeses with milk from its 900-strong herd of water buffaloes. Buffalo milk is typically used to make mozzarella and other fresh cheeses in Italy, but the Grittis make aged cheeses, such as hard, intense Granbù and Surfin’ Blu – a blue steeped in beer. Its flagship semi- soft Blu di Bufala – which has a creamy, mushroomy flavour – is a serial winner at the World Cheese Awards and is exported all around the world. Today, annual production stands at around 200 tonnes of cheese, with 60% sent abroad.

‘Right from the start, the decision was to distinguish ourselves on the market compared to any other producer that deals with buffalo milk,’ explains director Roberta Gritti, whose father Bruno invested in buffaloes and cheesemaking in the early 2000s.

gritti family quattro portoni
Also innovating in the region is the Gritti family of Quattro Portoni

The decision not to produce PDO cheeses was a business choice as much as anything, she says. ‘In most cases, producers of PDO cheeses are large industrial players. They have managed to standardise production by following the specification.’ By producing at scale, many PDO cheesemakers are able to make high-quality cheeses but also keep costs and the final retail price down, she adds. ‘For us, producing a PDO product in an artisanal way, with enormous production costs and lower prices, would have been an economically unsustainable choice.’

As Quattro Portoni’s export success demonstrates, new styles of Italian cheese are catching the attention of cheesemongers and chefs overseas. In the UK, Valvona & Crolla in Edinburgh, Limoncello in Cambridge, and Buongiorno in Liverpool have long flown the flag for Italian cheeses, but London has the greatest concentration of specialist retailers and restaurants.

Quattro Portoni Blu di Bufala
Quattro Portoni’s buffalo milk features in Blu di Bufala

Wimbledon-based Vallebona imports a huge range of lesser- known formaggi, supplying the capital’s best restaurants – from The River Café to Bocca di Lupo – as well as selling through its own shop in a 19th-century former fire station.

Owner Stefano Vallebona works closely with artisan producers in Italy to bring in extraordinary cheeses such as Blu in Vinaccia – a cows’-milk blue from Trentino-Alto Adige, pressed with sweet Moscato grape skins – and Crema di Pecorino from Sardinia, a spreadable sheep’s-milk cheese in a jar. ‘The influence of younger cheesemakers is contributing to a dynamic shift in Italian cheesemaking,’ he says. ‘While respecting the rich heritage and traditions of Italian cheese, they are infusing the industry with fresh perspectives, sustainable practices and a willingness to embrace innovation.’

Casatica di Bufala from Quatro Portoni is delicate with fresh notes

Exports are helping drive the shift, Vallebona adds, although Italy still has some way to go before it has the international reputation enjoyed by French fromage. ‘French cuisine has historically had a strong influence on international fine dining,’ he says. ‘Brie, Camembert and Roquefort are more prominently featured in international gastronomy. While Italian cheeses are highly regarded, the association of French products with gourmet experiences has been more widely emphasised.’

That is changing, according to one of the cheese specialists at Eataly, a giant Italian food hall in London that also has 40 branches worldwide. ‘Outside Italy, French cheeses have had enormous success,’ says Eduardo De Carvalho. ‘Today, Italian cuisine is exploding on the international scene, particularly cheeses. Think of the enormous success of Pecorino Romano PDO, a fundamental ingredient in the preparation of cacio e pepe or carbonara pasta.’

There are plenty of traditional Italian cheeses of long-standing that most Brits have never tried

Pecorino simply means sheep’s-milk cheese in Italian and covers a huge range of styles and protected regional cheeses that are becoming more familiar to Brits. Aged Pecorino Sardo – a PDO cheese from Sardinia that has a grainy, savoury character – has become a regular on many British cheese counters, including at Eataly. The emporium sells 132 different Italian cheeses, including 15 types of Parmesan but also lesser-known varieties such as Torta Montebianco, a slab of cheese comprising layers of Gorgonzola and mascarpone, and Caciocavallo di Grotta, a pear-shaped cheese hung up with rope to mature in caves in Campania.

At La Credenza, another London-based importer, director Nick Clinton points to innovative cheesemakers in Piedmont, such as Botalla, which makes the beer-flavoured Sbirro cheese, and Caseificio dell’Alta Langa, which produces mixed-milk cheese brands such as wrinkly rinded La Tur and ash-coated Carboncino. But Clinton also argues that there are plenty of traditional cheeses of long-standing that most Brits have never tried. ‘Historically, there are so many undiscovered cheeses that you have to explore the old varieties before you get into the new ones,’ he says. ‘There are over a thousand cheeses in Italy, and very few make it to the UK.’

Granbù is a hard, intense cheese from Bergamo's Quattro Portoni

That said, La Credenza does still source rare regional cheeses for some of its high-end customers. Small batches of Bitto Storico, an Alpine cheese aged for 10 years or more, and Caciocavallo Podolico from Basilicata, which weighs 4–8kg and looks like a giant ostrich egg, were both recently snapped up by Harrods as an exclusive on their cheese counter.

‘Brits like their cheeses gooey or hard, so Gorgonzola, mozzarella and Parmesan have done really well. But there’s a lot more to discover,’ says Clinton. ‘You could spend a lifetime eating Italian cheese and still not taste them all.’

Under the radar: five Italian cheeses to try

Caciocavallo di grotta
(Photo: Eataly)

Caciocavallo di Grotta, Campania

This hard pear-shaped cheese from Caseificio D&D is initially made like mozzarella by stretching the curds in hot water but is then hung up by rope in Roman caves and matured for around six months. Savoury, spicy and buttery.

Drink: The rich, aromatic character of Greco di Tufo stands up nicely to Caciocavallo’s piquancy.

Eataly, £33.80 for 1kg

quintano cheese
(Photo: The Fine Cheese Co)

Quintano, Lombardy

Made in a similar way to Taleggio but with raw sheep’s milk, Lavialattea’s award-winning washed-rind cheese has a pudgy texture and notes of cooked butter, earth and roasted beef.

Drink: The rich, honeyed notes of Alsace Pinot Gris work like a charm with this funky, savoury cheese.

Fine Cheese Co, £14.50 for 250g

(Photo: Botalla Formaggi)

Sbirro, Piedmont

A semi-hard cow’s-milk cheese, made by Botalla Formaggi, that is washed in the local Menabrea beer and coated in grains left over from brewing. The cheese is delicate and pliable, with yeasty, malty and slightly bitter notes at the rind.

Drink: A glass of Menabrea beer (blonde lager) is the recommended match. Alternatively, go for white port with nutty, lemon zest notes.

shop.celinos.com, £7 for 200g

piacentinu ennese cheese
(Photo: La Fromagerie)

Piacentinu Ennese, Sicily

The golden hue of this hard sheep’s- milk cheese, made at Casalgismondo farm, comes from the addition of saffron to the curd, which also provides a sweet, soulful flavour. Black peppercorns bring spice and crunch.

Drink: La Fromagerie recommends its Pinot Noir-led P Louis Martin Champagne; the bubbles and refreshing acidity cut through the intense cheese.

La Fromagerie, £14 for 250g

blu in vinaccia
(Photo: Vallebona)

Blu in Vinaccia, Trentino-Alto Adige

Fruity, spicy and powerful, this cow’s- milk blue from northern Italy is coated with sweet red grape skins left over from winemaking and is aged for six months.

Drink: Drier styles of Marsala from Sicily are recommended. The sweet, nutty wine works similarly to how port matches with Stilton.

Vallebona, £15 for 200g