The Lake Maggiore area and the valleys in its hinterland are renowned in Italy and abroad for the cheese produced from animals grazing on mountain pastures, which is a feature of the local culinary culture.
The ample lush pastures of the valleys have given the area a long tradition of high quality cheese production.
Classic local cheeses are the Ossolano d’Alpe, a cow’s milk cheese with a tasty yet mild flavour, the celebrated Bettelmatt, with a restricted production in only 7 alps in the Antigorio and Formazza valleys, and Mottarone, with its characteristic straw-yellow colour and many others such as goat’s milk cheese and ricotta. These cheeses are made on the high mountain pastures or in the dairies lower down in the valleys: for example, the Cooperative Dairy of the Antigorio Valley in Crodo.
Cheese is also made on the shores of the lake; an example is the Formagella of Luino, a medium-firm cheese made with whole raw goat’s milk.
And on the subject of superior regional products – don’t forget one of the best:Gorgonzola, which is made in the Varese and Novara areas and in the surrounding hills.
ANTIGORIO AND FORMAZZA VALLEYS
Of all the Alpine cheeses of the Ossola Valleys, pride of place must go to Bettelmatt, a cheese made on the high pastures of the Antigorio and Formazza Valleys from the whole raw milk of cows of the Bruna Alpina breed.
Dense yet soft, golden yellow or straw-coloured, Bettelmatt cheese has a mild, delicate flavour, redolent of the Alpine flowers the cows graze on in the early summer, in particular the erba mottolina or Alpine lovage. The variety of these flowers and herbs, which grow only on high mountain pastures, gives the cheese its unique flavour.
Originally the name “Bettelmatt” could be given only to cheese made on the Bettlematt alp, just below the Gries Pass at an altitude of 2,100 metres. Now the name is also used for cheese made at the pastures of Toggia, Kastel, Poiala, Vannino, San Giatto and Forno.
Each cheese is stamped with the name of the alp where it is produced, as well as the trademark certifying its exclusive production area.
The cheese produced in the Mottarone area and ripened in alpine farms high on the slopes of this mountain, overlooking Lake Maggiore and Lake Orta.
The hill massif is not known simply for its splendid views, but also for its cheeses. The milk produced at Mottarone is rich in vitamin A and produces a cheese known as “toma”, straw-yellow in colour and sold at various stages of ripening.
OSSOLA VALLEYS AND VAL STRONA
Throughout the Ossola Valleys and in Val Stronayou can still come across artisan cheese producers who make goat’s cheese from the milk of their own animals in the traditional way.
The cheese is made mainly from spring to autumn, after which the first snow falls prompt the return of the goats from the high summer pastures to their winter quarters in the valley. Goat’s cheese, called “furmagit da cavra” in the local dialect, is often used in local cooking, and can be eaten fresh or mature.
Fresh goat’s cheese comes in soft, white rounds called tomini, weighing from half a kilo to a kilo and a half. They can be matured for three months or so, which gives the cheese a distinct, slightly sharp flavour.
Ricotta is a fresh whey cheese with an aroma and a taste that differs according to the type of production and the place it is made. The different types of preparation result in different cheeses, which can be fresh, mature, baked, smoked, salted, mildor sharp. Ricotta is made from June to September on the lower mountain pastures, and from July to the end of August on the high pastures. Throughout the year the local ricotta production is guaranteed by the dairies in the valleys, creameries, turnarie dairies (cooperative dairies where cheese is made by the members who “take turns”), and private producers.
Some kinds of ricotta are ricotta grassa or rich ricotta, made from cow’s milk with the addition of cream, eaten fresh or with sugar; ricotta magra or low-fat ricotta, traditionally used in cooking, and ricotta stagionata or mature ricotta, which has a sharper taste.
Mascarpa is made by heating the whey of cow’s or goat’s milk. On the alp the cheeses are usually hung up to drain in special cloth bags. Mascarpa should preferably be eaten fresh, but is sometimes smoked.
Gorgonzola is a cheese made from cow’s milk. There are two kinds, mild and sharp. Sharp Gorgonzola has more pronounced blue veining, is denser, and has a stronger taste than the mild version.
Between the third and fourth week of the aging process, the cheese is pierced with metal rods, which allows air to enter and facilitates the germination of the mould spores.
The sharp kind goes well with hearty red wines likeGhemme Docg, Fara or Boca, the milder version with white wines or lighter reds. Gorgonzola is excellent as the basis for creamy sauces made with butter or cream.
According to legend, Gorgonzola was “discovered” by a careless cheese-maker who, distracted from his work by amorous preoccupations, put off his day’s work until the next day, when he mixed the previous evening’s curds with those of the morning, thereby obtaining a wholly new kind of cheese.