Wisconsin, the country’s dairyland, boasts the perfect terroir to replicate Italian cheese.
Among the various regions and landscapes of Italy, cheesemakers have spent centuries adhering to and perfecting ancestral techniques of cheesemaking. Today, it’s a sacred profession; one that represents centuries of tradition and a deep appreciation for their fertile lands—for quality cheese is only as good as the soil that grows the grass that feeds the cow.
From there, a cheese can develop flavors based on processing, aging and the addition of starter cultures (good bacteria). But for cheese-lovers in Italy—which is everyone—only the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) label can guarantee that the milk and production of a governmentprotected cheese is, indeed, from its region of origin.
“They wanted to ensure that it’s produced the way it’s been produced for hundreds of years because this is part of their identity,” says Allison Schuman, fourthgeneration expert at Schuman Cheese, the largest importer of Italian cheese in the United States. “Even though Italy is a very small country, every region takes a lot of pride in the different products they produce, whether wine, truffles or cheese.”
As waves of Italians immigrated to America in the early 1900s, Wisconsin became the nation’s top cheese producer. Similar to Italy, its landscape offered abundant green pastures, rolling hills and a cooler Midwest climate (dairy cows prefer 25-65 degrees). Today, there are 14,000 dairy operations across the state. “The terroir and unique European heritage of many farmers has translated into exceptional care of livestock and highquality milk,” says Schuman.
That’s what allows Wisconsin Italian cheeses to stand their ground against Italian DOP cheeses, says Oscar Villarreal, vice president of marketing for BelGioioso Cheese. The company owns seven cheese plants surrounding Green Bay, Wis., each of which specializes in a different Italian cheese. “Wisconsin milk was and still is simply unbeatable,” he says. “We work with 200 family-owned farmers from less than 30 miles away, and the same day it’s picked up, it’s made into cheese.”
Of course, replicating Italian cheese is easier when using a century-old Italian recipe. In 1979, BelGioioso founder Errico Auricchio left his family’s provolone business in Italy to start anew in “America’s dairyland.” Today, the company offers four varieties, ranging from mild and buttery (mild provolone aged 60 days) to aromatic and robust (sharp provolone aged 7-12 months).
“Provolone is being engineered out of what a traditional provolone should taste like, but ours is based on heritage.” It’s the ultimate sandwich cheese, notes Villarreal, as it’s in the same category as mozzarella.
But not all Italian products are steeped in tradition. Bel- Gioioso won Best of Class at the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest for its new Burrata ball with Black Truffles.
When sliced, the fresh mozzarella ball oozes with sweet heavy cream, mozzarella and truffle. It’s offered in 2, 4 and 8 ounces. “Add balsamic, olive oil and tomatoes, and it’s an impressive appetizer.”
For pizza, which demands a visual “stretch,” Allison Schuman says Fontal—a northern Italian cheese—is the “most beautiful melting cheese that’s ever existed.” In Italy, it’s often melted into polenta. In America, chefs combine it with mozzarella (a fresh, milky flavor but not a lot of complexity). “The more you mix textures and the same melting properties, the more depth of flavor you get.”
Schuman Cheese has been importing from the same vendors in Italy since 1945. But in 2006, it built two of its own cheesemaking plants in Wisconsin and hired a master cheesemaker from France. As national sales manager, Allison Schuman has a vast knowledge of not just flavor profiles but the chemical composition of cheese, so she frequently works with culinary and pastry chefs on recipe development.
Her most popular advice: “For any tomato-based dish, Ramano is a value item that often gets overlooked.” That means skip the well-known Parmesan on spaghetti and marinara. “You’re going to use a lot less product to get a much stronger, cheesier taste with Ramano, which is a little heavy and gamey and can stand up to acidity.”
Parmigiano Reggiano, on the other hand, is subtle, nutty and can complement anything light, such as pesto sauce, asparagus or greens. “Use it anytime you don’t want to overpower but give a bit of creaminess.” Schuman produces 1 million wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano annually, each of which floats in a pool of brine for 7-14 days and then ages for 10 months. “The more it ages, the more flavor you’re going to get.”
Chefs who want to further their knowledge of Italian cheese and beyond can take the newly updated, free Cheesecyclopedia course (and earn two continuing education hours) at www.WisconsinCheeseFoodservice.com/ Education. While the depths of cheese education are endless, a review of new and old varieties, storage tips and hot menu items will help chefs capitalize on the growing specialty cheese trend.
“Cheesemaking is so much more than recipes and formulas,” says Christophe Megevand, head cheesemaker at Schuman. “It’s providing a deep understanding of why we do what we do as cheesemakers to make the very best possible cheese.”