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Say Cheese: Coming around to Taleggio


Taleggio and its cousin, Quadrello di Bufala. (Domenica Marchetti)

Taleggio and I did not get off to a great start. I blame my dad.

It was a long time ago — more than 30 years — and we were in Italy. My dad had taken a business trip up north, to Lombardy. When he returned home, he had more than his suitcase and briefcase with him. He also had a neatly wrapped packet, which he said contained a piece of the best cheese in the world.

My sister and I both loved cheese, and who wouldn’t want to try some of the “best cheese in the world”? This was not a cheese that you could find back in the U.S., my dad said, making it sound all the more special.

Our kitchen was small. Even before my father opened the packet, my sister and I could smell it, and we looked at each other suspiciously. When he did open it, the pink and butter-colored contents were oozy and so pungent that it drove us out of the kitchen. I think my mom and maybe one or two of my aunts followed us out.

I can’t remember if they ventured back in, but my sister and I didn’t. Taleggio and its evil powers became a legendary joke between us. Instead of cooties we started passing “Taleggio germs” back and forth in the car. When I talked to my sister the other day on the phone, she admitted that after all these years she still has no desire to try it.

Until very recently, I hadn’t either. Why the change of heart? For one thing, Taleggio seems to be everywhere, like Lady Gaga or Ryan Seacrest. I’ve seen plump, 5-pound square loaves of the washed rind cheese, with its telltale orange-pink rind, at just about every cheese shop and cheese department I’ve been to lately.

Recipe Included

The descriptions I read of it were mouthwatering, with words like “beefy” and “mushroomy” and “nutty” and “yeasty” popping up again and again. It was said to go well with nuts, figs, pears, and just about everything else I like. It was time to bite. What’s more, I noticed it was turning up in all sorts of delicious-sounding recipes, in cookbooks, magazines and blog posts — from grilled panini to baked pasta to risotto (see the recipe for Taleggio and Mushroom Risotto, by Laura Werlin, at the end of this post).

The small wedge I purchased was semi-soft and somewhat sticky, though not too oozy and certainly not as pungent as the one from all those years ago. My guess is that the Taleggio that my dad bought was 1) more ripe and 2) a raw-milk version of the cheese, which is not available in the United States. (I suppose it’s also true that some 30 years down the road my taste and olfactory senses are not what they once were.)

At any rate, it’s no surprise that I was won over on my very first try: a small sliver, unaccompanied by crackers or any other vehicle. It had all of the characteristics that I’d read about. It was creamy yet supple and a little chewy, with a full rounded flavor that was indeed meaty and yeasty, tangy and slightly bitter. I really try to stay away from trendy culinary terms and descriptions but the one that jumped immediately to mind was “umami," the so-called “fifth taste” that refers to a savory quality found in certain foods, such as beef, mushrooms and some cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano is a good example).

The other word that popped into my head was Marmite. Taleggio reminded me of that sticky, salty brown paste made of yeast extract that British children love to slather on bread. (My college roommate, who grew up in England, adored the stuff.)

Making my peace with Taleggio turned out to be easier than I thought, so easy that I decided to be adventurous and try Taleggio’s buffalo milk cousin, Quadrello di Bufala. Taleggio’s history dates back to before the 10th century, but Quadrello di bufala is new. It is produced in the same region as Taleggio, by Caseificio Quattro Portoni, which makes a selection of irresistible-sounding buffalo milk cheeses, including Blu di Bufala, Crescenza di Bufala and Ricotta di Bufala (which I hope will also make their way across the Atlantic someday).

Quadrello’s paste is paler in color than Taleggio, more like heavy cream than butter, and it is dotted with lots of eyes. It has the same meatiness of Taleggio and is also buttery, with a pronounced tanginess that veers toward sour, but appealingly so. The rind, a light gray-brown tinged with pink, is thicker than Taleggio’s rind, with deep ridges that make it look almost like tree bark.

After trying Taleggio and Quadrello side by side, I couldn’t decide which one I preferred. I finally had to stop before I worked my way through an entire pound of cheese. I guess I was just making up for lost time.

-- Domenica Marchetti
(Follow her on Twitter.)

Taleggio and Mushroom Risotto
6 servings

The earthy, nutty, and creamy qualities of Taleggio are matched by similar qualities in the mushrooms to create a deliciously creamy and nutty risotto.The Taleggio's soft texture makes it difficult to cut, especially at room temperature, so try cutting the cheese while it's cold. Adapted from "Cheese Essentials: An Insider's Guide to Buying and Serving Cheese," by Laura Werlin (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2007).

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 1/2 cups boiling water
8 ounces brown or white button mushrooms, stems trimmed, caps cut into Ω-inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
About 7 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces cold Taleggio cheese, rind removed, cut coarsely into small chunks
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup (2 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

In a heatproof bowl, combine the porcini mushrooms with the boiling water; let the mushrooms soak for 20 minutes or until softened. Drain the mushrooms, reserving the liquid, and squeeze any excess liquid out of the mushrooms into the reserved liquid. Rinse the mushrooms to remove any remaining grit. Strain the soaking liquid through a damp coffee filter or damp paper towel-lined sieve into a 3- to 4-quart pot. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low or low to maintain a very slow boil.

In a large saucepan (about 4 quarts), warm the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are translucent, about 5 minutes. Do not let them brown. Add the porcini and the button mushrooms and cook until the fresh mushrooms are soft and most of their liquid has cooked away, about 7 minutes. Add the rice and stir constantly until it begins to look slightly opaque around the edges, about 5 minutes.

Add about 1 cup of the hot broth mixture to the rice and stir vigorously. Once the rice has absorbed the liquid, add another cupful. Stir vigorously after each addition of stock. Continue adding stock just until the rice grains are opaque and firm but tender to the bite, 15 to 20 minutes. You may not need to add all of the liquid or you might need to supplement it-how much you need depends on the rice. If you need more liquid, add hot water.

Once the rice is tender, stir in salt and pepper to taste and mix well. Add the Taleggio, butter, and thyme and stir just until the cheese and butter have melted. Add 2 tablespoons of the Parmigiano and stir to mix.

Divide the risotto between individual bowls or plates, sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano, and top with freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 485 calories, 19 g protein, 55 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 873 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

Recipe tested by Domenica Marchetti; e-mail questions to food@washpost.com.

By The Food Section  |  February 9, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, cheese, recipes, taleggio  
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Comments

Boy, I agree completely. We had Taleggio in Germany, and I spent months looking for it in the US; when I did find it, it was comparatively wan and pale. I finally figured out that the difference must be the raw milk -- either that, or they just don't sell the same, goopy, aged variety here. Even still, it's a fine snacking cheese.

We tried the Quadrello di bufala more recently; it was a little earthier and a little softer and is now one of my favorite cheeses.

Posted by: laura33 | February 9, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

I absolutely love Taleggio. I suppose it helps that I partially grew up in Lombardy, north of Milan. When I've had roomates though, the first time they found Taleggio or Gorgonzola in the fridge, they'd come to me to tell me about the spoiled cheese and freak out when I ate some in front of them. :)

I had a hunk of Taleggio in my frige this past weekend. From a cookbook I made some focaccia with sauteed onions and Taleggio (baked with it on top). Inspired by a dish I had in Portland, Maine, I also made some fried polenta sticks (cooked, cooled, cut into logs, and fried in oil) with Taleggio on top that melted from the residual heat. Both successful recipes I think.

I'm curious how you feel about the Grayson from Meadow Creek in VA. It's made in the same (similar?) process as Taleggio, and while different, I do like it a lot as I find it has many of the same characteristics.

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | February 9, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

@ArlingtonSMP Both your Taleggio recipes sound delicious. And yes, I do enjoy Meadow Creek's Grayson. Took me a bit to warm up to it because of its pungent aroma but what a wonderful cheese, and from right here in Virginia. Love that.

Posted by: Domenica1 | February 9, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

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