There are over four hundred different types of Italian cheeses, produced from the raw milk of the cow, sheep or goat, in all twenty regions of Italy. Their full-flavored and uncompromised natural taste set Italian cheeses apart from cheeses of most other origins. Traditional Italian cheeses continue to be produced using ancient techniques, by hand rather than machine. These time-tested methods began out of the necessity to keep milk for longer periods of time. By converting milk to cheese, not only could the nutritionally rich food be kept, but the flavor could actually improve.
Italian cheeses from each region are quite distinctive in flavor and texture and can be differentiated by their connection to the landscape, soil, climate, history and unique local cheese making traditions. Many traditional Italian cheeses are protected under laws of the European Union and Italy. Denominazione di Origine Controllata (D.O.C.) is an Italian law specifying that a food product is made in particular regions of Italy using a specific recipe and method of production. Under the European Union there is a similar law called Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). These laws maintain the integrity of traditional Italian wines and food products, often for cheeses.
Perhaps the most widespread and famous of all Italian cheeses is Parmigiano Reggiano, or Parmesan cheese of D.O.C. standards. It is a hard grating cheese essential to Italian cuisine, particularly as a pasta topping. Any cheese referred to as parmesan is an imitation of this wonderful original. Grana Padano is the most similar traditional Italian cheese to Parmigiano Reggiano. It is another excellent hard grating cheese and is also protected by D.O.C. laws.
The oldest Italian cheese is Pecorino Romano. It is also a hard cheese, but made from sheep’s milk. Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, a Roman soldier, farmer and writer, described how spicy Pecorino was made in his time, dating the cheese back to sometime around the life and death of Jesus Christ. According to ancient legend, Romulus, one of the founders of Rome, fed himself with Pecorino made from sheep’s and goat’s milk. Pecorino remains the preferred cheese of Romans.
Mozzarella, a semi-soft cheese, is arguably as famous and pervasive as Parmesan, if not more so. The traditional Italian cheese, Mozzarella di Bufala, is made from the milk of the buffalo. It has been a favorite of Neapolitan cuisine since the 14th century. Mozzarella has become an essential ingredient in many dishes, most commonly as the vital pizza topping, throughout all of Italy and many other parts of the world. Another traditional Italian cheese worth mentioning is Gorgonzola. This soft spreading cheese is made using a unique process of molding and aging to achieve its strong flavor and characteristic veining.
The process of cheese making is still a form of craftsmanship in Italy. The maestro cesaro, or cheese expert, carefully supervises the procedure. Free from chemicals and artificial additives, the resulting cheeses boast organic flavors true to the animal and the earth.