My first exposure to Montasio cheese came hand in hand with my initial introduction to renowned Italian-American chef, Lidia Bastianich. Greg Blais, of Heritage Radio’s “Cutting the Curd” featured Bastianich on his show to talk about her life as a chef and cheesemonger. Born in formerly Italian territory, Bastianich moved to Queens, New York when she was a teenager. She grew up to open a number of Italian restaurants, cook alongside Julia Child as a guest on her TV series, Julia Child: Cooking with the Masters, write a handful of cookbooks, star in her own cooking show, Lidia’s Kitchen and open the highly successful, Eataly, an Italian food emporium in Manhattan.
Mid-way through the show, Blais asked Bastianich to name her favorite cheese. Bastianich forthrightly declared Montasio (pronounced mohn-TAH-zee-yoh) as one of her top contenders. I grabbed my library copy of the cheese bible, otherwise known as Cheese Primer by Steven Jenkins to read up on this foreign mold.
Montasio cheese is a firm, light yellow/gold colored cheese with a natural rind, meaning an exterior that is self-formed; no microflora or mold and no washing are used to create their skins. On “Cutting the Curd,” Bastianich distinguishes Montasio from other cheeses akin to it such as Parmesan and Asiago, for factors including the animal whose milk the cheese is derived from and the climate of the pasture on which the animal grazed.
To learn more about the history of Montasio, I referred to Paul Kindsteadt’s American Farmstead Cheese. Montasio is a cow’s milk cheese from the over 2,500 meter high Giulian Alps in northeastern Italy. It is produced in factories and dairies in Italy’s northern Friuli–Venezia Giulia and Veneto regions. It is of the family of Alpine cheeses for obvious reasons. The regions in which it is produced grow rich grasslands that receive large volumes of rain and snow. These pastures are only available for grazing in the summer months when there is no snow. Therefore, the milking and making of Montasio only takes place during this season.
As far as experts know, Montasio was first produced in approximately 1200 A.D. by the Benedictine monks. Because of it’s remote and difficult to access place of origin, Montasio like other Alpine cheeses, was made to endure a longer and more arduous than average distribution route. As a result, it is a low-moisture level cheese which makes it durable and long-lasting.
In researching more about Montasio, I immediately came across the cheese’s official website overseen by the Consortium for the Protection of Montasio Cheese. This group ensures that all cheese branded with the name Montasio abide by four production criteria:
- Its cows are from Friuli, and eastern Veneto in the provinces of Belluno and Treviso and, in part, those of Venice and Padua.
- Its milk is subject to stringent quality controls and its processing is closely monitored.
- It must be made with low-impact technology which ensure a slow cheese-making process.
- And lastly, to guarantee its origin and compliance with the aforementioned production criteria, it must be labeled with a brand of origin on it’s rind.
Furthermore, as of 1986, Montasio is a Protected Denomination of Origin (D.O.P.) product, officially recognized by the European Union. This means that no cheese made or sold within countries that are members of the European Union can claim their product to be Montasio if the product is not entirely manufactured in the Friuli Venezia Giulia and Veneto region.
At this point in the post, you might be thinking that Montasio is overly-fetishized, and, depending on who you talk to about the topic, you might be right. Odds are, the greater part of us Americans would sneer at the intensity of protections afforded to a stinkin’ cheese (although this one’s not actually a stinky cheese). These legalities aren’t even put into place for copyright purposes so that one producer owns the rights to their product. Instead, the stringent guidelines that all cheeses claiming the name Montasio must follow, exist to ensure its cows graze on grass from the Giulian Alps. Would lawn atop a mere 2,000 meter summit do? No? Must be some uppity European thing…
However, were you to ask someone like Bastianich if she thinks the amount of regulations cheese has to follow in order to be recognized as Montasio is slightly over the top, she would say most likely say no. The required natural conditions set forth by the European Union and the Consortium for the Protection of Montasio Cheese give Montasio its terroir, a characteristic taste imparted to a food by the environment in which it is produced. Because of this quality assurance system, the Montasio cheese that you buy at Whole Foods will taste the same as the Montasio your Italian counterpart buys at the Fromaggio which will taste the same (more or less) as the Montasio produced, traded and consumed by Italian monks in the thirteenth century. “Cheese captures the locale of where it’s made. If you’re really into cheese, you can tell the difference between where it comes from” Bastianich explained on Cutting the Curd. “Cheese can carry memories because they have such a pronounced and unique flavor. And once you relate to it, it’s yours to keep. You’ll always be looking for that flavor” she concluded. In other words, the production criteria exist in order to preserve a cultural heirloom.
Procuring and Tasting:
I bought raw-milk Montasio cheese from Whole Foods Market on sale for $12.99 per pound. Typically $19.99/lb, Montasio is not exactly an economic buy for those of us on a post-grad/college-student budget. However, if you’re interested in indulging in some high-quality cheeses, Whole Foods can sometimes provide reasonable options; you just need to be flexible. At their cheese department, you will always find a diverse handful of cheeses on sale. In addition, if you download the free Whole Foods app onto your smartphone, you will gain access to exclusive coupons. Although I’ve never seen coupons for specialty food items, I haven’t been using the app for that long so don’t rule it out quite yet.
I tried Montasio on its own and with some bread. Its taste was mild, its texture was smooth. Because there were no holes in my wedge, I’m assuming it was Fresco, or Fresh, meaning it’s only been aged between 60 and 120 days. Word is that the older Montasio grows, the more holes it develops and the sharper tasting it becomes. I tried really hard to make out some of the tones of Montasio, but other than “milky,” I couldn’t discern much. Cheese experts agree that it is a very subtle cheese, so maybe it wasn’t the best one to start with in my grand attempt to refine my palate for cheeses. However, I don’t regret buying it. If there’s one flavor I could make out in Montasio, it’s the taste of deliciousness.
Cooking with Montasio:
Although slabbing a piece of cheese on top of sliced fruit doesn’t count as cooking in most people’s books, I’m including it in this section anyways. Per the recommendation of Steven Jenkins, for an appetizer to my lunch, I paired my Montasio with a pear, a Comice pear. I understood why Jenkins recommended this duo right away; pears are the Montasios of fruit. By that I mean, pears are mild and mellow tasting just like Montasio cheese is. Neither of them overwhelmed the other with their flavor. Rather, the faint sweetiness of the pear complemented the understated milky-taste and the barely-there saltiness of the Montasio.
While I munched on my fruit and cheese tartines, I went to work on Bastianich’s very own Frico with Potatoes and Montasio Cheese. I grilled onions and scallions with olive oil, salt and pepper in a pan before adding my sliced, boiled potato. I added some grated Montasio cheese and let it melt all over the potatoes before flipping it onto a plate. Buon appetito! The Frico dish was hearty and savory. The Montasio cheese turned a burnt orange color when it cooked. Its texture was perfectly elastic: chewy, but not too gummy, a perfect balance to the smooth bite of the potato.
The ingredients for these recipes were very cheap. The dishes themselves were easy to prepare and were also quite filling.
So there you have it! That, ladies and gentlemen, is my experience with Montasio. One cheese down, twenty-three to go..