Four Big Cheeses from the Alto Adige

I had never given much thought to Italy’s Alto Adige region when it came to buying cheese, but last week I had a chance to taste four cheeses from this Northeastern Italian region at a tasting at Clo Winebar in the Time Warner Center, and now I can’t wait to try them again.

Italian food expert Lou Di Palo, whose family owns Di Palo Fine Foods, was the speaker.  He told us that all of the cheeses were made by hand from cow’s milk that comes from small local farmers.  The cows graze on herbs and grasses that grow in the high mountain passes of the Dolomites.

The first cheese was Lagrein, which is confusingly the same name as an Alto Adige wine, but understandable when you learn that the Lagrein cheese is actually soaked in red Lagrein wine.  Then it is rubbed with herbs and garlic and  left to age about 2 or 3 months.   The cheese is firm with little holes and cracks.  It has a creamy texture and slightly garlicky flavor which I thought was great.  We tried it with a Muller Thurgau from Alois Lageder, one of the top wine producers of the region, but next time I want to have some with a bottle of Lagrein.

Dolomiten Konig resembled Swiss cheese, with its nutty flavor and holey texture.  The cheese is made from milk from the pristine Pusteria Valley and is aged about 2 months before being sold.  I could see using this cheese a lot for cooking as well as eating.   A spicy Gerwurtztraminer from producer Weingut Gottardi was a good complement.

My favorite cheese of the tasting was called Stelvio.  This is a PDO cheese, meaning that it is has been recognized by the EU with a Denomination of Protected Origin designation.  Lou explained that it is a “malga” cheese because it is made only during the summer months when the cows go to their summer pastures in the mountains.  Though aged only about 2 months, it had a lot of pungent flavor and buttery texture.   We drank Kellerei Kaltern from Pfarrhof made from 1000% schiava grapes with it, but any big spicy red would be good.

The final cheese of the tasting was Alta Badia, a straw colored cheese that is aged between 6 and 10 months.  It was pungent and tangy yet well-balanced with flavors of spice and fruit.  We had it with the Abbazia di Novacella Lagrein Riserva, an excellent wine.

In between cheeses, we sampled speck, the classic air dried ham of the region.  It may look a little like prosciutto, but the big difference is that speck is lightly smoked, while prosciutto is not.  We tried it both thinly sliced and cut into small chunks to better appreciate its texture and flavor.

Alto Adige cheeses are available at Di Palo, Murray’s, Todaro and in many other shops.  Speck, too.  All you need is some crusty bread and a bottle of Alto Adige wine for a fine summer picnic.

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    • Michele Scicolone