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Provolone del Monaco cheese: milk, tradition and craft
PDO Provolone del Monaco is a cheese with a stretched curd (pasta filata) from Campania; everything about this cheese - from the milk to its processing technique - is truly unique. We are in Campania in the Lattari mountain area, the mountain range overlooking the Sorrento peninsula.
How is PDO Provolone del Monaco cheese made?
The Provolone del Monaco cheese production starts early in the morning, when the fresh milk is brought to the dairy. Once the milk has been analysed, it coagulates at a temperature around 38 °C, hence without undergoing pasteurisation. The coagulation is activated by adding goat rennet which gives this raw milk cheese a unique taste.
After roughly an hour, the curd is ready to be cut, then it is left to dry for around 16-18 hours.
Now the time has come to start processing the Provolone del Monaco cheese. Master cheese-makers take the right amount of curd, cut it into pieces and pour hot water at around 80 °C all over it. Manual skills are absolutely paramount here. Cheese-makers put their bare hands in almost boiling water; I will never understand how they do it!
The curd gets softer with hot water and it is then stretched. Curd stretching is a very special moment.
Provolone del Monaco is the only cheese made using this technique. Once it is taken out of hot water, the paste is kneaded and stretched into long strings which can reach up to three meters depending on the weight that the cheese will have. This step is carried out to drain as much water as possible off the curd. It looks as if cheese-makers were wringing out a bed sheet!
After being stretched, the curd is modelled with an unparalleled craft and experience. The cheese gets its signature melon form and it is then put into a special container which leaves specific markings on the cheese surface, where the strings used for tying the cheese will be placed. The cheese is plunged in cold water for a couple of hours to let it firm up.
Then the cheese curd is placed in brine for 8 to 10 hours for each kilo of cheese. Afterwards, the cheeses are tied by hand, so that they have at least six sides. While the cheese ripens, the strings apply pressure on the cheese, contributing to shaping the cheese into an elongated melon.
The last step is ripening. Product specifications state that depending on the size of the cheese, Provolone del Monaco should age for at least 6 months. A 3kg Provolone del Monaco cheese ages for at least 6 months, while a 5kg cheese can age up to 10 months. Only few dairies let their cheeses age in natural caves which have a particular climate, humidity level as well as the presence of moulds which help obtaining this cheese’s truly unique flavour.
After the ripening, the consortium visits the dairy and affixes the mark “PDO Provolone del Monaco” together with the dairy identification number.
A family of cheese-makers: Provolone del Monaco cheese by Perrusio
The Perrusio dairy is a historic dairy belonging to the Perrusio family which still makes this incredible cheese. It takes its name from Mama Carmela Perrusio and it is a family business. The dairy once manufactured Fiordilatte Mozzarella cheese and is now specialised in the production of Provolone del Monaco cheese. It makes two cheese sizes: 3kg and 5kg. They make 24 to 27 cheese wheels per day, depending on the milk availability.
The Perrusio family was awarded with the prize for best PDO Provolone del Monaco cheese at the Provolone del Monaco Great Gala. In 2018 it won the De Gennaro competition for PDO Provolone del Monaco producers in the category “cheeses aged more than 12 months”.
Agerolese cow’s milk
Let’s move on to the milk used to make this Italian delicacy. 100l of milk are used to make 9kg of cheese, amounting to a 9% yield.
20% of milk must come from the Agerolese cattle breed. It is a local breed which was probably born as a result of crossing Bruna, Podolica and Jersey cattle breeds. Unfortunately, this cow breed is endangered and produces, by nature, little milk.
Agerolese cow’s milk has an indescribable scent encompassing all the aromas of the pastures where cows graze freely. Master cheese-makers only work with high-quality farms, since a great cheese needs great milk.
Why is it called Provolone del Monaco cheese?
Provolone del Monaco cheese name has a story behind it. At the end of the 19th / beginning of the 20th century, cheese makers used to come down the Lattari mountains carrying their cheeses. They would go out very early in the morning, when it was still dark and very cold outside; to protect themselves against the cold weather, they used to wear cloth sacks.
They were walking towards the harbour to reach the Naples market, where rich people could afford to buy this cheese, even though it was pricey. As they were walking towards the harbour, they would look like monks. That’s where the name “Provolone del Monaco” (Monk’s Provolone) comes from.
Provolone del Monaco flavour combinations
I really like eating Provolone del Monaco cheese together with honey or with wild strawberry mostarda. It is also ideal to make great traditional dishes, such as Spaghetti alla Nerano with zucchini, garlic, basil and Provolone del Monaco cheese.
Thanks to its intense flavour, it also pairs well with pumpkin risotto or with Orecchiette pasta with tomato sauce, instead of Parmigiano cheese.