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Say Cheese: 5 from Piedmont for Easter

The Alta Langa cheeses feature lovely packaging. (Domenica Marchetti)

The cheeses of Caseificio dell’Alta Langa remind me of a big, beautiful family in which each child is clearly related to the others but at the same time is uniquely blessed with her own talents.

I have written about (swooned over, really) Alta Langa cheeses before, most recently in October. At that time I lamented that I had been unable to find the company’s one blue variety, Blu di Langa. Unfortunately, that is still the case. But last week I did come upon something of a treasure trove of other Alta Langa cheeses I had never tried before, at Cheesetique and at Grape + Bean -- five in all -- so I brought them home to celebrate Easter (or, as we dubbed it in our house, Cheester).

Alta Langa Cravanzina. (Domenica Marchetti)

Caseificio dell’Alta Langa, based in northern Italy’s Piedmont region, makes about two dozen varieties of fresh and soft-ripened cheeses from the milk of cows, goats and sheep. Some of cheeses combine milk from all three animals, others are a mix of two milks and some are from a single type.

What the company manages to do so well is create fresh and very slightly aged cheeses with loads of character. One way the cheesemakers achieve this is by letting the milk sit out to ripen, sometimes overnight, allowing natural bacteria to flourish. Even though the milk is pasteurized afterward, the early fermentation ultimately produces a more complex-tasting cheese. The varying proportions and mixes of the milks for the different cheeses -- all very carefully considered and executed -- add to their complexity.

Alta Langa Brunet. (Domenica Marchetti)

It doesn’t hurt that the cheeses are also gorgeous. They come in a spectrum of whites and creams that would make any wedding gown designer green with envy. Their surfaces are alluringly rippled and crimped, and their diminutive shapes -- tiny towers, palm-size oval cakes and squat round and square pillows -- look great on a cheese plate. To top it off, they are beautifully packaged, with pastel-hued paper labels depicting whistling goat herders and other pastoral scenes. (Yes, I am a sucker for packaging.)

Here are the five that graced my Easter cheese board:

  • Bocconcino di Langa: This pure, three-ounce goat’s-milk round with a bloomy white rind is smaller than a hockey puck and just shy of an inch tall. It is made according to an old farmers’ recipe. The interior is the color of cream. It’s a bit like brie and in fact has a slight mushroomy aroma, but with a definite chevre flavor.
  • Il Nocciolo: Made from a mix of all three milks, this two-inch-tall cake weighs about six ounces. It has no rind and a smooth top that looks like white chocolate fondant. It is buttery rich, with the texture of cheesecake and a clear goat cheese tang. It was one of the two favorites among our Easter dinner guests.
  • Brunet: One of the most beautiful of the Alta Langa cheeses, Brunet, an eight-ounce round of goats’ milk cheese, was the other favorite. It is so delicate and soft that it is packaged first in a paper shell and then in a plastic tray. The tender rind is daintily crimped all over and pale ivory with a white bloom. The coconut-white interior is runny close to the rind, and lush and dense -- more like fresh chevre -- in the center. Its tangy flavor is balanced by a nice nutty finish.
  • Cravanzina: This blend of cow’s- and sheep’s-milk cheese, aged for 15 days, comes in a squat, round, eight-ounce wheel. The bloomy white rind gives way to a runny, ivory-hued interior that has an almost meaty savoriness to it, a definite hit of umami.
  • Bonrus: An eight-ounce oval of sheep’s-milk cheese, Bonrus has a distinctive pale orange and bloomy white rind with deep wrinkles. The rich, sticky paste is golden and more firm than that of Cravanzina, not surprising as the cheese is aged for 21 days. It delivers a hit of salt, followed by a nuttiness characteristic of sheep’s-milk cheese.

A few tasters were put off by the rinds of the Cravanzina and the Bonrus, both of which had a distinct whiff of ammonia. This is often a sign of overripeness, especially in bloomy rind cheeses, and once it has penetrated the paste, the cheese becomes inedible. When I tasted the cheeses again later on, I used a small spoon to scoop out the paste, which as far as I could tell had suffered no ill effects.

Cheese is subjective, and one person’s perfectly ripe is another’s overripe. I called Jill Erber, owner of Cheesetique, where I had bought the two cheeses (as well as the Brunet and the Bocconcino). She advised that customers should bring back any cheese that tastes “off” to them. But if, like me, you appreciate the more intensely flavored cheeses, you can cut off the rind and just scoop out the interior. Sometimes, the paste is at its best when the rind has just crossed into overripe territory. Let your own nose and palate be your guide.

-- Domenica Marchetti
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  April 6, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Italy, Say Cheese  
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I really enjoy Brunet, so I'll have to look for the other Alta Langa cheeses here in Minnesota. Thanks for the rundown!

Posted by: golda78 | April 6, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

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