By Eileen Ogintz
LAKE COMO, Italy (Day Four) — Parmigiano Reggiano… Pecorino… Fontina…
Gorgonzola. Cheese made from sheep’s milk, from goat’s milk, from cows and some made with all three.
Shelves and shelves of giant rounds of cheese, square cheeses in rooms carefully controlled for cold and humidity as the cheeses age for months and some cases for years.
They’re covered with walnut leaves, with pepper and some with saffron… Some are “bathed” in tomato so they have a reddish hue. Others are covered with pressed grapes after the wine harvest. The cheeses come from artisan dairies and are “prepared” here and watched over carefully.
Welcome to Luigi Guffanti 1876 in the northern Italian town of Arona that has been buying cheese from the same production sites since 1876, then refining them in special “caves,” sometimes for years before they are sold around the world. They are artisans and specialists who oversee more than more than 200 kinds of cheese here.
“Everything you do to the milk changes the taste of the cheese,” explained Walter Carbo, who tours us around the chilly caves. Even the grass where the animals graze impacts the taste.
We are staying in a villa overlooking Lake Como in the tiny town of Laglio booked by the American company Doorways Villa Vacations, which can orchestrate all kinds of “unique” experiences like visiting the caves of a famous Italian cheese company. Did I mention after our tour, we sat down to taste six of the cheeses we’d seen — accompanied by wine, of course?
“The selection is the hardest part of the work,” Carbo says.
I love that there is a kids’ corner complete with a Cheese History coloring book in English that explains the process, from how milk is first heated and stirred. “Stirring and more stirring…it is so tiring and so hot! “
After the cheese is removed from the pot, it is wrapped in cloth and is put in a mold that sets its final form. “Now the cheese is ready for a little nap — and when it wakes up it will have taken on its final form!” the book says. Some of the cheese is placed between pieces of wood and pressed. Salt is added to the cheese and then the cheese “has to rest” and is aged for any time from a few weeks or years. The cheese experts we meet need to rotate the cheese, wash it and most important, watch it.
I’ve never seen so many giant cheeses in one place — big rounds I couldn’t even lift.
“We watch it and we wash it and we turn it,” Carbo explained. One cheese is covered in ash, balsamic vinegar and juniper; another is washed with particular oils. Some are meant to be enjoyed fresh, others only after aged a few years.
Several generations of the family have been in the business, started when Luigi Guffanti purchased an old mine at the foot of the Alps to age his cheese. The company experts select cheeses made with raw milk; some made only in the summer in the mountains according to ancient traditions. The company is by the shores of Lake Maggiore, which has an ideal micro-climate for the aging process.
Don’t ask me what’s the secret to all this. All I know is that the cheeses taste great!