The voice of life and salvation says: Why will a person eat of some cheese and still wish to remain ignorant of the nature of that cheese?
“He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise.” — Thoreau
Of Alpine Cheeses
While common wisdom might claim that cattle prefer flat lush lowlands that pamper their bulk, leaving the rough spots and steep slopes for more agile, rugged, stoic ruminants, in fact not all cows just frown and moo at a little exertion. The Alps, severe as they are, have long harbored dairy-based, cattle-rearing cultures, whose herds make seasonal migrations up and downhill in rhythm with the blossom and fade of mountain meadows (they call these vertical movements transhumance). With the rampant abundance of high-altitude springtime and summer — after the great white burden has lifted — with grasses, flowers, and herbs all ripe and exuberant — then these hardy bovine breeds enjoy some of the most delicious pastures in the world; and they make from it, in the mystery of their bowels, some of that same world’s most coveted milk. By creating hard mountain cheeses like Beaufort, Comté, Gruyère, or just about everything Swiss, the cattlemen transform this rich milk into massive, sturdy wheels that last them through brutal and snowdrenched and stark alpine winters.*
But this post is not about those hard cheeses, or, per the footnote, those godless alpine marmots. It is about a softer and stinkier cheese of the Alps.
On the Italian side of the Alps there are also cows; and when transhumance-ing herds make their autumnal journey down from the peaks to more temperate fields, they are still milked on the way, and cheese is still made. Lombard dialect calls these cows stracche — tired — and the family of cheese made from such weary beast teats is called stracchino. One member of this lineage, our chosen cheese for now, is Taleggio: ancient, lusty, pungent, and meaty. (Another famous one is Gorgonzola, reserved for a future post.)
So Taleggio is made in and named for the Val Taleggio, which is gouged out of mountainside by the River Enna (“val” being Italian for valley). Here’s a map I drew:
Until the late 19th century, Taleggio was all made in the Val, but since then factory cheesemaking has taken some commercial production downhill and out of Lombardy to parts of Piedmont and Venetia. The method, standardized over centuries and awarded D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) protection in 1996, goes something like this: Curds are left uncooked and cut large, hazlenut-size, contributing to a velvet-cream texture; they are turned and cut again, then heated gently in square molds for up to a day before aging. While they mature in conditions that mimic the humid cool caves of the Val, the rinds are washed weekly with brine. Thirty to forty days of aging bring the cheese-squares to an edible ripeness. That’s not long (which is why raw milk Taleggio is illegal in the US, where raw cheeses must be aged at least 60 days), and they can stand to sit some more: the flavors will intensify from moderately tart, with a Swiss-like tang, to deep, rounded, and beefy. The smell also intensifies, even more dramatically, to furnish at its fullness a pungency too robust for the faint of spirit and weak of will.
Taleggio’s redolence of rain-wet grass and body odor, cooked greens and baking bread results from the brine washings, which clean some bacteria off the rind but also foster the growth of Brevibacterium linens, the characteristic infection of washed-rind cheeses — what makes them stink well and colors them orange. (More on that category to come, sometime). A particular blend of yeast, molds, and bacteria flourish on this rind; they come to sweeten the cheese, and break down proteins and fats to make for a doughy thick smoothness. The best Taleggio I’ve known has a wonderfully balanced, complex and lasting flavor: some fresh salt and tang mellowed, widened and warmed by grass and meat flavors, some scrambled egg, a slight sourness on the swallow, a fruity aftertaste.
Some of my sources claim that Taleggio is old enough to have been mentioned by Cicero, Cato, and Pliny. The rest, more conservative, probably more accurate, report that it was birthed to human hands somewhere between the 9th and 11th centuries. While medieval washed-rined cheeses are generally associated with monasteries — ironically, the monkish charge of cleanliness bred such strange new bacteria, o how symbolic — I haven’t found anything to indicate that Taleggio was another monastic innovation. Well then, what kind of person ate Taleggio?
In case you need more reason to consume this cheese, know that you will place yourself in the company of well-cultured aristocracy. My limited research finds Taleggio at the tables of two glorious medieval feasts. It was served for the wedding celebration of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti in 1411. (These names should mean nothing to you; so here’s a good line on Sfroza from Machiavelli’s Prince: “Francesco Sforza, through being martial, from a private person became Duke of Milan; and [his] sons, through avoiding hardships and troubles of arms, from dukes became private persons.” Now you’re educated.) Taleggio also appeared, a little earlier, at the coronation of Pope Clement VI in 1344.
Like other Avignon popes, Clement VI appreciated and encouraged deliciousness in food and drink. He did not claim perfection or even sainthood, just lived, in his own words, “as a sinner among sinners,” more of a statesman than an infallible mouthpiece of God. Still it seems he worked few fine deeds in his time: in addition to eating and serving Taleggio, he was renowned for reliably sumptuous generosity (sumptuous enough to gobble through the papal treasury); he condemned the massacres of Jews that were becoming widespread after the outbreak of plague in 1348-9; he issued a Bull against the creepy, proliferating groups of traveling Flagellants, labeling their leaders “masters of error”; and he patronized art and learning, like any decent aristocrat.
Nevertheless, the luxuriousness of Clement’s Avignon lifestyle has irritated some critics, ancient and modern, and provoked vicious tirades. I’ll quote two here — because these are the kinds of quotations I live for. First, Petrarch, in a letter, sometime, wrote of Clement’s Avignon:
Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous satellites; instead of soberness, licentious banquets; instead of pious pilgrimages, preternatural and foul sloth; instead of the bare feet of the apostles, the snowy coursers of brigands fly past us, the horses decked in gold and fed on gold, soon to be shod with gold, if the Lord does not check this slavish luxury. In short, we seem to be among the kings of the Persians or Parthians, before whom we must fall down and worship, and who cannot be approached except presents be offered. O ye unkempt and emaciated old men, is it for this you labored? Is it for this that you have sown the field of the Lord and watered it with your holy blood? But let us leave the subject.
I have been so depressed and overcome that the heaviness of my soul has passed into bodily affliction, so that I am really ill and can only give voice to sighs and groans. (Quoted from The Petrarchan Grotto.)
Next, a modern outcry: the first item on a list of crimes intended to place Clement VI among the 10 Most Evil People of the 14th Century CE:
Pope Clement VI during the massive death and misery of the world did celebrate by continuing endless drug fuelled sex parties and great banquets of the finest food.
I’m pleased to assume that one such “finest food” was Taleggio; and it speaks to the wonders of the modern world that peasants like us can now enjoy the same grand cheese that played some part in those famed excesses of Avignon.
(If it matters to you, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, states quite baldly that “the incriminations against [Clement VI’s] moral conduct are unfounded.” Let our consciences rest.)
(Posts won’t all be this long in the future. It’s just that right now I’m unemployed.)
* Of Marmots
Concerning the brutality of alpine winters: I think David Attenborough once taught me that alpine marmots have adapted to the endless freeze by becoming some of the most cruel creatures on earth (although still not comparable, of course, of course, to humans and parasites — two beasts that convinced Mark Twain to hate God). These marmots must hibernate in little marmot-holes while the snow is out; and since those winters are so dreadfully long, they must be careful to keep just the right balance of huddled occupants, or else all of them could die. Spring comes, the marmots see the sun and all get frisky. But mother-marmot must be pragmatic, so, in accordance with Satan’s will, if any of her daughters get pregnant with a baby that the hole might not support — *gasp* — mother-marmot beats the poor daughter into bloody, unhappy miscarriage. Thank the stars that global warming might yet extinguish these monsters, according to YouTube.