In Valle d’Aosta, Fontina cheese preserves more than the local milk
Several salamis and a hare hang from pegs on the wall, and a merchant is preparing to weigh a wedge of cheese. This is the scene that appears in a 15th-century fresco in the castle of Issogne, a quaint town in Italy’s smallest and highest region, Valle d’Aosta, where I arrived several days ago. Standing before the vintage painting, I notice that the wheels stacked on the merchant’s table look just like the Fontina cheeses I’ve glimpsed in gastronomie and restaurants all around this dairy-rich countryside. And, in fact, the cheeses are more or less the same, despite a centuries-wide generation gap.
Indeed, Fontina Valle d’Aosta—Italy’s venerable mountain cheese—is proudly unchanged, having long ago secured a spot among the world’s great foods because of its flavor as a table cheese as well as its fine melting properties. Fontina Valle d’Aosta was among the first Italian cheeses to earn recognition as a name-protected cheese, in 1955, and was given Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Union in 1996. Accordingly, only cheese made in the Aosta valley can bear this premium label; lesser commodity-style Fontina cheeses, sold in supermarkets in their waxy red and brown coatings, do not carry a regional designation.
To learn why this alpine Fontina is so special, I had to catch up with the cows. Given the challenging cold climate of this mountain region, they spend a good part of the year in lower-valley pastures or barns. But in early summer, these athletic cows begin a steep, steady climb known in the local French-Italian patois as the inarpa (“ascent”). Touring with a guided group, I retrace their route (by car, thankfully) to an elevation of about 2,000 meters, where clanging bells warn our driver to slow for a herd of cows. Under the watchful gaze of a shepherd leaning against a crook, the black-, red-, and brown-dappled animals routinely graze along the roadside.
These mountain-climbing cows are accompanied to the alpeggi, or high mountain pastures, not only by herders but also by dairy farmers and cheese-makers. The low-slung wooden buildings we’d been passing on our ascent provide cow stalls and a cheesemaking room on the first floor, with simple living quarters above. Beyond those are rifugios (reserves), reachable only by foot, on rutted trails formed and maintained by cows’ hooves. “People live an isolated life here,” says Ezio Toscoz, director of the Fontina Milk and Cheese Producers Cooperative, which jointly coordinates the aging and merchandising of cheese from nearly three hundred local producers. “In the most remote spots, all the supplies are brought in by helicopters, and on the return trip, they take out the new cheeses.”
All of these timeless grazing practices aim to preserve the diet of wildflowers and grasses that lends unique flavor to the local milk and, by extension, the cheese; this summer feast of carotene-rich plants also deepens the color of each Fontina wheel. Roberto Ronc, a regional agricultural expert, introduced us to some of the five hundred species that contribute to this magnificent bovine salad bar. Spinachlike palantago thrives in pastures well fertilized with cow manure. The dark-red vanilla orchid is one of ten orchid varieties that grow in these mountains, and, according to Ronc, “rhododendrons like the iron in the rocks, surviving in a place that would be too dry for other flowers.” Hiking up to a sky-blue glacial lake at 2,500 meters, where cows wouldn’t arrive until mid-August, we see large blue gentian blossoms, dainty violets, dandelions, tiny white yarrow, and at the top, a yellow flower called genepy that has the moraines to itself and is used to make a sunny liqueur that goes by the same name.
The topography of the region has also spawned local lore, such as the belief that the most important activities must take place on the “right side” of a valley. That’s where a family’s pastures, vineyards, and house should be, with the “wrong side” reserved for mundane necessities such as tool sheds. By the time the visitor learns this, she’s likely been told—with a wink—to watch out for the dahu, an imaginary animal with longer legs on one side of its body, allowing it to better navigate a mountain path (though in only one direction). The dahu also comes into play as a courting ploy: a young man might invite the object of his attention to take an evening stroll in search of the dahu.
“The dahu is both legend and joke,” explains Elisabetta Converso, who operates a guide service in the region. “It’s really about coping with the slope . . . a way of making peace with the realities of living in a place where conditions are hard.”
It is four in the afternoon, the hour when Italy begins to stir after the languor of the midday break. Right on cue, Silvano Bizel’s hundred or so cows amble into the stalls for their second milking of the day at this alpeggio called Les Ors. Soon after, cheesemaker Ivo Vial has filtered 700 liters of the rich butter-colored milk into an enormous copper cauldron. His actions are unhurried and purposeful. For the making of Bizel’s full-cream cheese, the raw milk must begin its journey within two hours of milking. This is cheesemaking at its most primal: milk from a single herd, transformed into cheese in a room only steps away.
Waiting for the milk to heat, Vial flips cheeses from a previous day and embosses the Bizel stamp onto the forms he deems ready for the next step. When the milk in the cauldron reaches 36°C, Vial adds calf rennet, and as the custardy curds roil in the milky liquid, he begins to break them with a cutter until each is the size of a grain of rice. At this point the temperature is increased to 48°C, where it remains for about an hour.
Submerging heavy muslin into the cauldron, Vial gathers it around a mass of curds the size of a basketball but weighing a hefty 8 kilos (about 17½ pounds), and he pulls it out with the aid of both hands and his teeth. For a casaro (cheesemaker) working alone, this three-corner lift remains the most practical way to do a job requiring more than two hands.
Once the curd is distributed to seven cylindrical forms, some of the whey is expelled by a mechanical presser aided by a good deal of muscle power from Vial. After several pressings, he unmolds one to show us the slightly concave shape the finished wheel will retain.
Next stop is a cool, damp shed across from the cheese-making room. Most forms are whisked off to one of the cooperative’s large caves, where they are finished by a team responsible for salt-washing the rinds, but a few stay on the premises to be aged and eaten the following year.
Afterward, relaxing over glasses of genepy and a sparkling white called blanc mousseus, Vial and our group nibble matchsticks of Fontina aged the typical three months. I ask him about a typical workday. Because the cheesemaker at Les Ors is also the cook, Vial is up by four in the morning to make breakfast while the first milking takes place. Following a morning meal of Fontina, blood sausages, and potatoes, he starts making cheese while the herder accompanies the cows back to the pastures. After lunch, he grabs a nap, and the cycle begins again. By nine p.m., with dinner done, the forms filled, and the cows in their stalls, it’s time for bed.
Though strenuous, the nonstop daily routine is not Vial’s main challenge. “The biggest frustration is variations in the milk,” he explains. “Cows mostly have good judgment in what they choose to eat, but not always—and the wrong choice could give an off taste to the milk. Or perhaps today the milk has a lower fat content than yesterday.” Because of these variables, the cheese-maker’s three decades of experience are especially valuable in making a cheese that looks, smells, and tastes consistently like Fontina Valle d’Aosta.
Keeping the Cheese
Descending to the damp, chilly depths of what was once a copper mine, we breathe in the heady aroma of the cheese cave where new wheels of Fontina are matured. There are a couple thousand forms in this cave, adjacent to the cooperative’s headquarters. They are stacked floor to ceiling, row on row, and each wheel requires daily attentions by a white-jacketed attendant: the application of dry salt one day, brushing with salamoia (brine) the next, wiping off the liquid that oozes from the wheel and rotating in a precise pattern on subsequent days. Over the course of about eighty days, the cheeses mature and develop a natural rind with a terra-cotta hue.
Bearded, unsmiling, and as intent on his work as a surgeon, the co-op’s cheese technician pushes a metal instrument into the center of a wheel. Pulling out a plug of cheese, he sniffs, pausing to check for an off odor. With a satisfied expression, he
replaces the plug and gives the wheel a tap, which brings forth a deep thrum. “That’s good—a dull sound might mean trouble,” he explains. Cheeses that don’t make the grade—about 15 percent on average—are sold as ordinary formaggio valdostano.
In the Kitchen
A favorite stop for hikers and nature lovers in the high meadows of Valle d’Aosta is Les Vieux Alpages, a renovated stone building dating back to the nineteenth century that operates as an agriturismo during the warmer months. Visitors are drawn by the formidable cooking skills of Corinne, the owner, as well as the bucolic surroundings. Corinne’s kitchen is filled with the intoxicating aroma of carbonada, a beef stew simmered with red wine and juniper berries. It’s a classic valdostano dish, and so are a half-dozen other dishes showcasing Fontina.
The creamy cheese sauce called fonduta is lavished on everything from crepes to steamed vegetables and pizza. Today Corinne has drizzled some of the sauce over poached pears. In a pastry-lined pan, she layers sautéed potatoes and onions, topping them with beaten eggs and—yes—Fontina. A potful of steaming buckwheat polenta, once ladled into bowls, will also be finished with cubes of Fontina.
In addition, Corinne is making her version of seupa alla valpellinentse, Valle d’Aosta’s best-known dish. Seupa means “soup,” but this is really a hearty casserole with layers of sturdy whole-grain bread, Fontina, and cabbage, moistened with meat broth. It’s a rib-sticking meal for farmers and cheesemakers who labor in the mountain air. Though I don’t qualify on that score, it’s amazing how good this mountain dish tastes after a day of vigorous touring.
Fontina Valle d’Aosta is such a natural for the kitchen, thanks to spectacular melting attributes, that it is easy to overlook as a table cheese—and that would be a mistake. With its sensuous semisoft texture and ripe flavors hinting of hazelnuts, a well-made Fontina can definitely stand on its own.
Any doubts on this score are dispelled by a visit to Andrea and Elvira Barmaz, who make wine under the Di Barrò label, using indigenous grapes such as petit rouge and fumin from a patchwork of small hillside vineyards. Andrea is also a cheese technology instructor at Aosta’s agricultural institute, so the Fontina wedges on the table are as carefully selected as the bottle of Tourette wine.
Andrea is deeply involved in a cooperative initiative that calls for cutting hundreds of Fontina wheels each year to judge their quality and to support local cheesemaking skills. Underachieving producers are not penalized—at least not right away—but are instead showered with technical assistance. “We want to encourage them to improve, not make what is already a difficult occupation more difficult,” says Barmaz.
After tasting a five-month Fontina, we sample one aged almost a year. It is soft, verging on runny, and buttery-tasting, pungent. Interesting, for sure, but in the end, though I had expected to succumb to the more intense flavors of the longer-aged cheese, I find that I prefer the younger one, which is supple and mellow.
Also on the table is valdostano bread. A weighty blend of rye and other whole grains, and often studded with dried chestnuts, these loaves used to be baked once a year when communal ovens were the norm; the loaves were then suspended from the ceiling and pulled down one by one. Nowadays, locals can eat fresh bread any day, but many maintain the tradition of baking this bread in December to create a supply for the coming year. Their only concession is to freeze the bread rather than dry it to a rock-hard consistency that generations ago would’ve softened only in a dish of seupa.
As my hosts offer a generous slice of Fontina with this dense, delicious bread, followed by a sip of valdostano wine, I can think of no better way to savor the quintessential flavors of Valle d’Aosta. As if reading my mind, Barmaz raises his glass and salutes the moment: “Here we have three things that have passed through fermentation: bread, cheese, and wine . . . all in perfect harmony.” I’ll drink to that. c
Written by Toni Lydecker, a food journalist, culinary travel writer, and cookbook author specializing in Italian regional cooking. She lives in the Hudson Valley.