Pannerone Lodigiano (Week 13)

Pannerone Lodigiano
“You don’t want this cheese, trust me.”

Cheese: Pannerone Lodigiano

Producer: Caseificio Carena

Where: Casella Lurani, Lodi Region, Italy

Just about 20 miles from Milan is a small town called Caselle Lurani and in that town is an easy to miss creamery that turns out this cheese, among others, that is actually on an endangered species list of sorts. Pannerone, a cheese made from afternoon cow’s milk (2% more milkfat, apparently, than the morning take) has a few things that make it unique, and give it an acquired taste which may be why it is not nearly as widespread as it once was. In fact, the creamery run by the Carena family is the only producer left. Pannerone’s (comes from panéra, which means cream) unique qualities come from an unusual production process; the whey is allowed to run off naturally, there is no pressing involved at all and that makes for a soft cheese. Then, it sits for four or five days at 28-32 degrees until all the whey has drained. No salt is added to the cheese, so the bacteria that are at work here are solely responsible for the flavor. The cheeses look impressive in the cheese counter, which is how I happened upon it: a cylinder is about 8 inches high and a foot in diameter. It has lots of little holes and a nice pale ivory color.

My next challenge was to get a piece, after I identified what I wanted. That went through the point-and-use-exaggerated-facial-expressions method, because even if Venice is inundated with visitors from abroad, a lot of merchants do not speak anything but Italian, and my Italian is non-existent. It was clear what the message directly aimed at me was to convey: ‘no, this is not what you want.’

‘But it most certainly is!’ said my English words and my facial expressions and my body language. The gentleman I spoke to decided to bring in the big guns, the owner of the shop, who reiterated: ‘bee-ter!’. I was certainly not going to like it. After this final attempt to dissuade me, I just had to have it, and the experience of finally sinking my teeth into it was rewarding: not that it would make it to the top of my list, but my buying the cheese over some local objection and then reading up on it made the tasting feel like the end of a journey.

Pannerone II
A cheese of many holes

It is creamy and a bit sweetish at first, but it does develop an unusual, mildly bitter flavor in the mouth soon afterwards. It could do with some fruit, to counterbalance the bitter taste, and that is a popular combination in many recommendations. Pannerone has a D.O.P designation and the Slow Food organization recognize it’s uniqueness as well – they are in fact the people talking about it as if it is an endangered species worthy of preservation. Things look good though, at the Carena Creamery: the descendants of Angelo Carena who passed on to that great dairy in the sky two years ago seem to have fun doing what they are doing, judging by the images on their website, adn a determination to carry on the good work, all the way down to the youngest members of the family. Great-grandpa would be proud!

Fourme d’Ambert (Week 16)

Fourme d'Ambert
Fourme d’ Ambert: slice of the old block

Cheese: Fourme d’Ambert

Producer: Société Fromagère du Livradois

Where: Fournols, Puy-de-Dôme, France

Think of this cheese as a blue with training wheels. That sounds a little unkind, as if the goal should be to graduate to the more challenging blues, and it’d be far from me to be the Penicillium Roqueforti Nazi. Fourme d’Ambert, as blue cheeses go, is not so sharp, very creamy and still has the musty flavor that comes with the blue mold. For some it could be an ideal gateway drug, others may decide that this is as moldy as they’d like it to get. Unlike its famous cousin Roquefort, this cheese is made with cow’s milk, which is a partial explanation for its smooth flavor; sheep’s milk often lends an edge to the cheese.

Legend has it that Julius Ceasar, on his way to Alesia where he defeated Gaul leader Vercingetorix, munched on some Fourme, which would make it a sort of a Benedict Arnold fromage. More reliable mention of the cheese dates back to the 9th century, where it was used as a currency, if you will: cheese makers, who did their work in stone huts in the summer pastures called Jasseries, paid for the use of the land with their cheese. The Fourme was mostly sold on the market of the town of Ambert, from which eventually it took its name.

The area in which, according to the regulations which bestow the AOP designation on Fourme d’Ambert, is largely in the Auvergne region, and the cows, who need a minimum of 150 outside grazing days, spent their time on land that is between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in altitude. Today the Jasseries are hardly used anymore and the milk is collected by a small number of rather large creameries, which determines the cheese’s designation as a fromage laitier, a factory-made cheese. That sounds worse than it should be because even if the cheese does not come from a single farm (fromage fermier) or is largely produced by hand (fromage artisanal), the entire set of rules still apply: the feed for the animals must come from the designated AOP area, cannot contain any GM products and, importantly, the milk has to be raw, not pasteurized.

The cheese is marketed after ripening at least 28 days, but a longer period is not uncommon. Some 20 liters of milk, a little more than 5 gallons, go into a Fourme (the word comes from the latin ‘forma’, which is the root, in French, for both forme (form), and fromage (cheese), so Fourme probably means cheese). The shape is always the same: a cylinder 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) in height and 13 centimers (5 inches) in diameter. It is sold by the slice or the half slice, and usually wrapped in foil. The rind is not really edible, but it is very thin, so there is no need to lose big parts of the creamy goodness. My Woodland Hills Whole Foods carries the l’Or des Dômes brand from the Société Fromagère du Livradois.

Pattern on the Fourme d’Ambert rind