Posts Tagged 'italian cheese'

Beckett and Joyce on Gorgonzola Cheese

Now, at last, for a literary interlude, I must offer two passages from Irish modernist prose, both of which feature Gorgonzola as their creamy centers.

Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks — his first published prose fiction, if I remember right (1934) — is something like a collection of short stories centered on the character Belacqua. Burning toast to an indigestible blackness is part of the refined, almost scientific lunchtime routine for this obsessive and compulsive youth; after which he sets out for the rotten cheese to complement: Gorgonzola.

Now the great thing was to avoid being accosted. To be stopped at this stage and have conversational nuisance committed all over him would be a disaster. His whole being was straining forward towards the joy in store. If he were accosted now he might just as well fling his lunch into the gutter and walk straight back home. Sometimes his hunger, more of mind, I need scarcely say, than of body, for this meal amounted to such a frenzy that he would not have hesitated to strike any man rash enough to buttonhole and baulk him, he would have shouldered him out of his path without ceremony. Woe betide the meddler who crossed him when his mind was really set on his meal.

He threaded his way rapidly, his head bowed, through the familiar labyrinth of lanes and suddenly dived into a little family grocery. In the shop they were not surprised. Most days, about this hour, he shot in off the street in this way.

The slab of cheese was prepared. Separated since morning from the piece, it was only waiting for Belacqua to call and take it. Gorgonzola cheese. He knew a man who came from Gorgonzola, his name was Angelo. He had been born in Nice but all his youth had been spent in Gorgonzola. He knew where to look for it. Every day it was there, in the same corner, waiting to be called for. They were very decent obliging people.

He looked sceptically at the cut of cheese. He turned it over on its back to see was the other side any better. The other side was worse. They had laid it better side up, they had practised that little deception. Who shall blame them? He rubbed it. It was sweating. That was something. He stopped and smelt it. A faint fragrance of corruption. What good was that? He didn’t want fragrance, he wasn’t a bloody gourmet, he wanted a good stench. What he wanted was a good green stenching rotten lump of Gorgonzola cheese, alive, and by God he would have it.

He looked fiercely at the grocer.

‘What’s that?’ he demanded.

The grocer writhed.

‘Well?’ demanded Belacqua, he was without fear when roused, ‘is that the best you can do?’

‘In the length and breadth of Dublin,’ said the grocer, ‘you won’t find a rottener bit this minute.’

Belacqua was furious. The impudent dogsbody, for two pins he would assault him.

‘It won’t do,’ he cried, ‘do you hear me, it won’t do at all. I won’t have it.’ He ground his teeth.

The grocer, instead of simply washing his hands like Pilate, flung out his arms in a wild crucified gesture of supplication. Sullenly Belacqua undid his packet and slipped the cadaverous tablet of cheese between the hard cold black boards of the toast. He stumped to the door where he whirled round however.

‘You heard me?’ he cried.

‘Sir’ said the grocer. This was not a question, nor yet an expression of acquiescence. The tone in which it was let fall made it quite impossible to know what was in the man’s mind. It was a most ingenious riposte.

‘I tell you’ said Belacqua with great heat ‘this won’t do at all. If you can’t do better than this’ he raised the hand that held the packet ‘I shall be obliged to go for my cheese elsewhere. Do you mark me?’

‘Sir’ said the grocer.

And now, from Joyce’s Ulysses: Leopold Bloom considers lunch, while struggling to keep his mind off his wife’s approaching adultery. He’s troubled by the carnivorous gluttony of his fellow customers (“Eat or be eaten. Kill! Kill!”), and so shuns beef for the moment. Almost settles on a sardine — the last lonely sardine of summer — but then asks at last for a Gorgonzola sandwich. Some critics, the Bloomlovers, consider his decision a sensitive compromise between the thesis of bloody meat and the antithesis of flimsy vegetarianism: a synthesis in the form of an animal food that does not entail the death of the animal. Richard Ellmann, who wrote the fat Joyce biography you will find at your bookstore, thought a Gorgonzola sandwich was the best existential choice, “because cheese is neither vegetable nor meat: it is formed from mammal’s milk without slaughter, and enclosed in bread which is vegetable in origin but reconstructed by man.” And what does Bloom think?

Kosher. No meat and milk together. Hygiene that was what they call now. Yom Kippur fast spring cleaning of inside. Peace and war depend on some fellow’s digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat drink and be merry. Then casual wards full after. Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mitey cheese.

Not the most immediately decipherable passage — but very nice, I think, and potent. Later, Bloom’s stream of consciousness dwells on

the feety savour of green cheese.

Ah yes.

Pervert.

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Gorgonzola for the Busty Lady?

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Giotto's depiction of Envy: eats snakes backwards and wears fire for shoes.

Gorgonzola is another stracchino cheese, like Taleggio: it’s made from the milk of “tired” cows, coming down from the highs of their summer grazing in the Alps, on top of the world. (The curious may wish to read my post on Taleggio.) It used to be called “green stracchino,” generically, before it was named “Gorgonzola, “ after its alleged town-of-origin. At my home, we prefer to call it “the weeping green-eyed beast” — an epithet that bears no relation to the Green-Eyed Monster of Envy (that most deadly of deadly sins, “which doth mock the meat it feeds on,” according to Shakespeare, and makes you look like a leek left too long in the sun, according to William Langland).

In addition to the love-stricken swain tale (recited here), Gorgonzola boasts another origin-legend of folly, anxiety, and unexpected redemption. The story goes that a Gorgonzola-area innkeeper dealt in stracchino, before any stracchinos were green; and one day he discovered, to his horror, that much of his cheese stash had fallen ill with a greenish mold. After some deliberation the innkeeper decided — whether out of maudlin desperation or weasel-cunning — to push the green cheese on his customers. He called it a new food masterpiece, a culinary delicacy, a spectacle of local culture; he flourished all the old tricks of the confidence-man cheesemonger. His customers ate, unsuspecting, and they loved it. (They don’t always.) News of the new green cheese spread, and a regional wonder was born.

This would have been somewhere between the 9th and 11th centuries, probably. In the 1950s and 60s, low-quality imitators and foreign devils threatened the reputation of Gorgonzola — as well as the businesses of decent, traditional cheesemakers. So name-protection was granted in 1955 and a Consortium for the Protection of Gorgonzola Cheese was created in 1970. The cheese’s production is now restricted to Lombary and Piedmont; the method (a slightly unusual one) is now standardized, a little industrialized, as much as the Consortium decided it needed to be.

Visit the Consortium’s web page for more information on production — and also, more urgently, to see Italy’s new line-up of Gorgonzola Babes! A collage of photos, fading in and out over the title bar, consists of images you’d expect on the covers of romance novels and Cosmopolitan, images you might want to hide under your mattress. The marketing model for Gorgonzola seems to be “Glamor, Romance, and Cleavage.” Not an uncommon model . . . and no less apt for cheese than for watches and chewing gum, I suppose. Consider this ad I found, a mild example:


I prefer not to know what’s being said. I did find out, though, that “topolona” means “chick” in colloquial parlance, “big female mouse” more literally. “You beautiful big mother of rodents, you. You chubby, cheese-crazed mouse matron. Have some Gorgonzola, my pudgy, bucktoothed, primeval pest. And show me your mammaries — at least the tops, please. Or the sides.”

Gorgonzola can be bought young and sweet, dolce, or aged and piquant, piccante or naturale. I’ve had more experience with the dolce, and it’s a strikingly unique flavor: a lingering blue mold bite; a creamy white paste that melts like ice cream in your mouth; a honey-and-fruit sweetness that hits the higher tones on your palate. I haven’t had other blues much like it. (The closest I have had is a very fine and no less unique American rehashing called Oregonzola, made at Rogue River Creamery in Oregon.)

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Coat of arms of the Comune di Gorgonzola. To explain the symbolism: There is a piece of green cheese on top of the tower, as in life. The lions are racing. Both lions love green cheese, like good and brave people should. The Monarch watches over, and approves.

Graukäse photos by Mr. FX

Taking a brief detour from all that Gorgonzola jabber —

Anyone with any interest in:

1. Peasant cheeses

2. Ancient cheeses

3. Farmstead or home kitchen cheesemaking

4. Shapely wooden kitchen utensils (now your mouth must be watering, your head spinning, your fluids leaking . . .)

should take a few minutes to look at Mr. FX’s recent photo essay on farmstead Graukäse. This “primeval” cheese of Tyro demands no fancy techno-industrial hoohaw and gadgetry — not even rennet. The raw milk, left to sit, curdles itself and cultivates its own bacterial garden. But Mr. FX has already said what needs to be said in his post. So I will get back to making Thanksgiving pies and cultivating my holiday paunch.

Taleggio, and the “Foul Sloth” of Avignon

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.

Taleggio

This is hero cheese.

This is hero cheese.

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:

Handmade!

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.

Very <i>stracche</i> people and animals crossing the Alps with Hannibal.

Very stracche (tired) people and animals crossing the Alps with Hannibal.

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.

Pope and Culinary Sophisticate Clement VI

Culinary sophisticate, Pope Clement VI

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.


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