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So, we cannot travel this year… but food is always an amazing way to experience a different place and culture. I was lucky enough to chat about Italian cheeses with Chef Carlo Bigi who has led the kitchens at some of my favorite Italian restaurants in NYC, like Gemma and Sant Ambroeus.
Chef Bigi introduced me to the AOP Agriform cheeses from the Northeast of Italy. The cheeses are truly ancient and full of history! The Grana Padano, for example, dates back to the year 1000. Initially, the cheeses were created by monks and nuns to use up excess cow’s milk. Now, they all enjoy protected PDO status.
You have certainly heard about Parmigiano Reggiano, the most well-known and probably the most expensive of all the cheeses we tasted. Its origins lie back in the 12th century but it is still made today in much the same way – using the same ingredients and skills in the same places in the Emilia region. Wheels of Parmigiano are aged anywhere between twelve to thirty months, and the texture and flavor difference is immense! With aging, the cheese develops calcium crystals and takes on its characteristic flaky structure.
I noticed that the milder Asiago also got more buttery tasting with age. We tasted both an Asiago Fresco, rich in live lactic cultures, and an Asiago Stagionato, which is usually aged between 2-4 months. Chef Bigi paired the Asiago Fresco with spicy fresh green grapes and shiso leaves. This was so eye-opening as a combination. I loved this unexpected “green” pairing that recalled the grasses of the fields of the Asiago Plateau.
We also tasted a Piave, which was new to me! Such an enjoyable cheese, perfect for a holiday cheese platter. It comes from the Belluno area of Italy, and while the “brand name” is relatively new and, perhaps, less well-known than its other cheese counterparts to international consumers, I hope you give it a try. Remember to serve it at room temperature.
Chef Bigi created some truly inspired pairings for the cheeses: red onion and ginger chutney and Marcona almonds to play off the Piave; pumpkin mostarda paired with the Grana Padano; chestnut honey and roasted hazelnuts to accompany the Asiago Stagionato, and a delectable port wine cranberry compote to compliment the Montasio, another table cheese that was new to my repertoire.
Overall, it was great fun to talk about Italian cheese with someone as passionate about the subject as Chef Bigi. I hope this gives you some more great ideas for holiday entertaining!