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History and production of PDO Taleggio cheese
Taleggio is a cow’s milk cheese with raw paste. Cheese wheels have a rectangular shape, measuring between 18 and 20 cm in height and weighing between 1.7 and 2.2 kg. The cheese rind is soft and has a particular colour tending to pink, due to the action of surface microflora.
The paste is compact with no eyes; it is softer below the rind and, as we get closer to the inner part of the cheese wheels, it becomes more structured. The colour is white, tending to straw yellow. This cheese has an immediately identifiable scent, in which notes of milk can be easily detected.
The flavour is equally impressive. Taleggio cheese has a sweet, but aromatic taste with an average persistence and an excellent truffle aftertaste. Let’s take a closer look at this delight, to understand its story and be able to enjoy it fully.
The story of Taleggio cheese
Let’s start by talking about the name of this cheese, which is also its place of origin. Val Taleggio is a valley in Lombardy, located between Bergamo and Lecco. This cheese has been made here since the early Middle Ages; it was first born out of the need to preserve excess milk and out of the intuition to use the caves spread across the valley. The result is a soft cheese with was generally called ‘stracchino’; this term says a lot about the milk used to make it, which was strach, tired, since it was obtained from the evening milking session, which took place when the tired cows would come back from the pastures.
The term is very vague and actually includes many traditional cheeses from the Lombard valleys. Among those, Taleggio was eaten and appreciated for a very long time, without getting any official recognition.
It was only in the early 20th century that Taleggio was given a name and a dignity. Cheese-makers from Val Taleggio had already realised that this cheese was unique and they were right; as soon as they started acknowledging this cheese as a product on its own, its success never stopped. A big part of this success is due to restaurant owner Amilcare Arrigoni.
Born in Olda in Val Taleggio, Amilcare decided to try his luck abroad, in France to be more precise. When he came back to Italy, he decided to keep on working in the restaurant business and to promote this exceptional product from his land. He made the Taleggio cheese widely known and gave a new impetus to the development of the valley. From that moment on, success was guaranteed.
In 1944, a ministerial decree was issued, which set the minimal fat content percentage for each cheese. The term “Taleggio” was used for the first time in a communication of policy-makers and the name was officially recognized.
In 1951, the “International convention for the use of appellations of origins and denominations of cheeses” gathered in Stresa. Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland agreed on some sort of pact with the purpose of creating one official regulation for the cheese industry, by also defining the appellations of origin and denominations.
In 1954, the Decree No. 125 set the rules for the Protection of Designations of origin and typical geographical indications of cheeses. The Decree no. 1269 of 1955 of the President of the Republic defines and distinguishes between the designations of origin and the designations of typical products: the former is more or less the forerunner of the PDO designation, while the latter is a designation at national level, which relates more to the production technique. Inexplicably, the Taleggio cheese was put into the second category and it obtained the Protected Designation of Origin only in 1996.
In the meantime, the Consortium for the protection of Taleggio cheese, which strives to protect and promote this cheese, was founded in Crema in 1979. Besides providing cheese-makers with technical assistance and carrying out research work, the Consortium works alongside the Central Inspectorate for Quality Protection and Fraud Repression of agrifood products, the official body of the Ministry for Agricultural and Forestry Policy in charge of monitoring food products. The Consortium includes today 25 dairies and 21 cheese refiners.
In 1998, Taleggio obtained the Controlled denomination of origin, which is a label that identifies the territory for the production of cheese and sets product specifications, and which was later replaced by the PDO.
In 1994, the Consortium officially requested the PDO recognition to the Ministry for Agriculture, which was then granted in June 1996. From this moment on, Taleggio has always been a product with Protected Designation of Origin: each step, from the production of raw materials, to processing and packaging, must comply with product specifications and can only take place in permitted areas, which are the province of Bergamo, Brescia, Como, Cremona, Lecco, Lodi, Milan, Monza, Pavia, Novara, Verbano and Treviso.
Standards for the PDO mark were also set: 4 circles on two lines, the one on the bottom left must also include the dairy code; on the other three circles there must be a T, identifying and guaranteeing that it is real PDO Taleggio cheese.
How is Taleggio cheese made?
Taleggio cheese obtained the Protected Designation of Origin; hence, the raw material, i.e. milk, should only come from cows that are reared in the provinces listed in the product specifications. After the milking session, the milk is collected and processing begins.
The first step is coagulation. The milk is heated to a maximum temperature of 35 °C and, once the whey inoculum and the liquid veal’s rennet have being added, the curd starts to separate from the whey. The next step consists in breaking the curd; this is carried out over two steps, in order to obtain a paste with an optimal consistency. Then the curd is extracted and placed in moulds that are slightly tilted to get rid of all excess whey.
Now it’s time to steam, which is fundamental to obtain a good end result. This step eliminates all remaining whey, lets the cheese texture mature and the paste properly acidify. Steaming lasts from 8 to 16 hours and takes places in cellars with a controlled temperature ranging from 22 to 25 °C and a humidity close to 90%. During this step, the Taleggio cheese wheel is turned over on a regular basis to make the paste more compact, and then it’s time to brand the cheese.
The brand is the signature symbol of PDO Taleggio cheese, which is placed on the top side of the cheese wheel. The next step is salting which helps the rind to develop and the cheese flavour to become more intense. The product specifications allow the use of two salting systems: dry-salting which consists in spreading coarse salt on the cheese wheels, or plunging the cheese in brine, which is the most commonly used industrial method.
The cheese wheels are now ready to be aged in a facility that recreates the same conditions of those caves in which cheeses were traditionally left to ripe. Cellars must be cold (between 2 and 6 °C), but most of all, humid. The ideal humidity level ranges from 85 to 90%, contributing to the development of the surface mould which gives the rind its signature pinkish colour.
During the aging step, cheese wheels are well looked after; they are turned over on a regular basis and they undergo many sponging steps with water and salt to promote the development of the microflora. Taleggio has a centripetal maturation which means a maturation going from the rind towards the inside: surface bacteria form the rind and the maturation process moves to the centre of the cheese wheel. Aging lasts at least 35 days up to two months, if we are after a cheese with a more persistent flavour.
Taleggio has a unique, aromatic and persistent flavour. It is reminiscent of undergrowth scents and has a truffle aftertaste which makes it all the more enticing. The texture is very soft and pleasant to the palate.
Flavour combinations are endless but, keeping in mind that this cheese melts perfectly, it is commonly used to make dishes, such as risotto. It pairs very well with pumpkin and late-growing Radicchio, since it complements the sweetness of the former and contrasts the bitter note of the latter.
It tastes exceptional with mushrooms, also thanks to its signature truffle hint. It can also be used for quiches, flans and savoury pies. It is incredible with lasagna, with polenta from Bergamo - with which they share the same origin - and on baked pasta. It is also ideal for a cheese fondue, but it is delicious on its own, too, with some fresh fruit, especially pears and grapes.
To sum it all up, PDO Taleggio cheese is an explosion of taste and tradition; it is very versatile and can be used in many dishes. It has an excellent taste and it is one of the most important cheeses in the Italian cheese landscape.