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Italian Cheese Expertise

Posted by Merritt Steidl, deli category analyst
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I opened the window of my room in our 17th century Tuscan villa and let the cool spring morning air drift in. The sun was shining over the pastoral countryside and I couldn’t help but think how different the view was from my own window more than 4,500 miles away. We were staying in a small farm village outside of Vicchio and century-old buildings dotted the rolling hills in the distance. The excitement was building as we were about to begin our journey.

Embarking from our villa, we found ourselves on 1,500 acres of countryside owned by Il Forteto, complete with a farm and restored 11th century castle that serves as a common house. The cooperative, made up of only 100 people, was founded in 1977 by 13 friends from the University of Florence. Their vision was to build a stronger community. With this in mind, all the members lived in homes on the Il Forteto land and were paid the same wages, a practice that remains unchanged today.

Il Forteto’s farm is in the middle of Tuscany, a wonderful Pecorino region. Our guide explained that, luckily for us, May happened to be peak time in Il Forteto’s cheese production. This is when the sheep are released back into the pastures after a long winter spent in the stables. Everyone was “all hands on deck” as we toured the facilities. The additional workload was due to the increased quantity and high quality of spring milk.

Cows leave the pastures and head to the barn for milking at a farm on the outskirts of Bolzano, Italy.

In keeping with tradition, Il Forteto still uses recipes from centuries ago and much of the work is still done by hand. Their commitment to quality extends to the training and assistance they provide to their farmers. Il Forteto owners help them purchase the best milking equipment, with a payback plan over the next few years. They also uphold high quality standards by rejecting milk if the chemical composition is compromised, or if any antibiotics were used. If a farmer brings in this type of milk more than once, Il Forteto will discontinue their partnership.

A team of Lunds and Byerly’s deli staff and FoodE Experts visited Italy to gain firsthand expertise about some of the specialty cheeses available in our stores.

One of the most highly regarded cheeses made by Il Forteto is Pecorino Toscano. This is a certified Designated Origin of Production (DOP) cheese, meaning it must be produced under strict guidelines in only specific regions (similar to champagne versus sparkling wine). Stephano Sarti, one of Il Forteto’s founders, explained how the terroir of the Tuscan land passes on unique qualities to the Pecorino made there.

“I’ve read articles about Il Forteto in the past, but seeing the land in person was inspiring on a whole new level,” said Michael Brantl, cheese specialist at Lunds Hennepin Avenue. “I’m looking forward to sharing my newfound expertise with customers to help them understand how truly unique these products are.”

The next stop on our trip brought us to the home of the Gelmini family. Run by fourth generation owners Marco and Chiara Gelmini, the siblings proudly continue the tradition of handmade Gorgonzola cheese. Gorgonzola is a DOP blue cheese in Italy and it must be produced in the Lombardy or Piedmont region. Marco and Chiara noted they keep production small to maintain the utmost quality and integrity of their product.

Just outside Verona, Italy, our team visited a facility that stores more than 200,000 wheels of cheese that will later be distributed throughout the world.

Work is done by hand, including the scooping of curd into wheels, the salting of the rind, and the washing of the wheels. During the aging process, 25,000 wheels are turned by hand each week to help the cheese lose extra moisture.

“I’m so proud we are able to offer these high quality artisan products to our customers,” said August VanMeter, a cheese specialist at Byerly’s St. Cloud. “The love and labor that goes into making these cheeses is unbelievable.”

After sampling their freshly cut Gorgonzola on crackers with crisp apple slices, we knew the extra creamy Gorgonzola Dolce was a product we needed to start offering in all of our delis. It’s mild in flavor and so creamy that you’re almost able to spread it like butter.

“I can already imagine sitting down after work with a wedge of creamy Gorg, a baguette, and a glass of wine,” said Amy Goetz, FoodE at Lunds Central. “Customers are going to love this!”

FoodE Expert Amy Goetz enjoyed sampling Mila’s soft mountain cheeses.

Our final visit was to Mila, an Italian dairy company in Bolzano. There, in the heart of the Alps, Mila collects milk from 3,500 local farms daily. Each farm averages just 12 cows. Christian Oberdörfer, the Mila export director, told us these farms are smaller in size because the tough mountain conditions aren’t conducive to larger herds. The cattle usually spend the winter inside, but then graze outdoors for the entire summer. This makes the milk very high in fat and protein.

On our long flight home, exhausted but still buzzing with excitement, I reflected on the lives of the people we met on the trip. To these individuals, it’s more than cheese; it’s a way of life, a tradition, a rivalry, but mostly, it's a labor of love.

When shopping our cheese counters, you might discover the origin of a cheese and its flavor, texture, and appearance, but an added appreciation comes from learning about the pride, passion, and commitment these farmers have for their products. A greater knowledge blesses you with an amazing respect for their cheeses.

*Read the entire story in the Fall 2012 issue of Real Food Magazine.

Tags: ItalyTuscany

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