COUNTDOWN TO CHEESE 2001 – Cheese On A Plateau

30 Aug 2001

The youth who acts as our guide on the upland plain has the sun-bronzed face typical of those who live at high altitudes. He is not a professional mountain cowherd but in summer he helps out his friends and relatives.

‘This is a bad year,’ he tell us heavy-heartedly. ‘There’s no water, not even drinking water for the cows. Some cowherds have already started leaving the summer grazing’. Leaving the summer alpine grazing on June 28 means bringing down the herds they had taken up barely three weeks before. This is catastrophic: it means bringing them back to their stables, feeding them on hay and kissing the alpine-grazing cheese goodbye for this year. For a delicate system like summer grazing zootechnics, which already faces the problems of isolation, insufficient income from the products and the difficulties caused by increasingly restrictive European laws, the loss of a summer’s production is an enormous blow. 68 summer mountain pastures are still active in the Sette Comuni area, and the milk is made into cheese in 27 of these. Thanks to public intervention (the pastures are the property of the upland municipalities) and the assistance of Coldiretti (National Farmers’ Association), these pastures have been refurbished and are now quite comfortable. Many have added a farm-holiday business to the traditional cheese-making activity. The cattle farmers also breed pigs and make brawn and sausages, and in summer they serve these products to tourists who throng to the delightful local mountain paths, along with polenta, tosela (freshly made curds, usually fried), soups and mushrooms. The life of a mountain cowherd is not as hard here as elsewhere. And it is much easier than it was a few decades ago.

But it is not just a question of greater comfort or a decent income: if you hear or read the local writer Mario Rigoni Stern on the subject of his childhood and his attachment to these mountains, you realize how strongly these mountain dwellers are linked to their land and ancient crafts. Although Asiago’s pretty, healthy (and perhaps a little drowsy) air with its bars, hotels and shops might suggest an economy strongly based on tourism. Tourism and cheese are the two driving forces of the local economy. The cheese is Asiago, obviously, which however includes very different various types of cheese under a single name and DOP: pressed Asiago, a soft full-milk cheese; Asiago d’allevo, made from semi-skimmed milk and suited to long maturation, and d’allevo from the mountain pastures, the leading product which may not be made at all this year. This will not be a huge disaster in terms of numbers, bearing in mind that the average annual production of Asiago is about 20,000 tons while the mountain version reaches more or less 70,000 kg; but in terms of quality and communication, it would be a serious loss.

Slow Food have created a Presidium to protect this quality product and convince the mountain cowherds – who tend to sell their cheeses fresh – to prolong the maturation period. Now the cheeses are usually kept for 10-12 months, called mezzano, but those matured for 18-20 months are superior. The perfumes are complex, the cheese is hard but soluble and the aromas are rich in overtones of grass, almonds and sun-dried hay.

In the competition held at Asiago on June 29-30, the jury panel of international experts was in no doubt: of the 46 participating samples of raw milk cheeses from the province of Vicenza, the mature versions obtained the highest score. So one might wonder why consumers do not appreciate this cheese as they should, and are not prepared to pay the right price. It is probably because consumers no longer know how to appreciate it: too many odorless, flavorless cheeses have anaesthetized their taste buds. And outstanding cheeses like mature mountain pasture Asiago are threatened with extinction.

Selected for you by Enrico Azzolin

Governor of Slow Food Veneto

Where to stay and eat

Gallio (Vicenza)

Hotel Lepre Bianca da Pippo

Via Camona 46

Tel. 0424 445666

13 rooms with bathroom, telephone, TV, minibar.

Prices: single 150,000 lire, double 250,000-300,000 lire. Breakfast included.

This hotel, situated just before Gallio, is sophisticated with an elegant restaurant: wooden floors, flowers, satin table linen. And then there’s Pippo, who tells you about the delights his wife has prepared in the kitchen. Start with warm sweet and sour chicken salad, or garlic sausage on toasted bread with Vezzena cheese. The first courses are wonderful – little ricottas with pumpkin or zucchini pancakes – and the second courses are equally tempting. Cheeses, desserts and wine list are all of the same high standard.

Roana (Vicenza)

Baita Laghetto

Via Laghetto 69

Tel. 0424 66062

10 rooms with bathroom, telephone, TV, minibar.

Prices: 70,000 lire per person including breakfast.

In the heart of the Highlands, facing an artificial lake, this is a comfortable hotel and restaurant with a family atmosphere, favoring local traditional recipes. We recommend the grilled meats and game dishes and there is a remarkable selection of homemade ice-creams. The price is about 40,000-50,000 a head without wine.

Where to eat

Asiago (Vicenza)

Tre fonti

Via Rodeghieri 16

Tel. 0424 462601

Closed Monday and Tuesday

Prices: 40,000 lire a head excluding wine

An attractive trattoria with a welcoming family atmosphere. The young chef, Riccardo, worked abroad for some years before returning to his quiet Asiago; he now runs the business with Maria and his girlfriend Dora. After an appetizer of horsemeat with dandelion, we recommend the nettle, speck and potato soup, the fettuccine with mushrooms or the gnocchi with nettles. Among the second courses: stewed hare with sultanas and pine nuts, stewed roebuck with polenta, baccalà with sultanas and grilled lamb cutlets. Turning to wine: there is a house wine, or else a wine list divided into regions, with a good choice of labels. Booking necessary.

Lusiana (Vicenza)

Valle dei Molini

Via Valle di Sopra, 11

Tel. 0424 407372

Closed on Tuesdays and Wednesday lunchtime

Prices: 40,000 lire a head excluding wine

Courteous, professional Agnese is in charge of hospitality, service and wines while the cooking is left to Francesco, who prepares his dishes with wild herbs, mushrooms and other typical products of Northern Italy. After chanterelle mushrooms with tosella cheese and Treviso radicchio flan, there is fresh pasta: tagliolini with morel mushrooms and gargati al consiero, a local short pasta with a sauce of salami and vegetables. For the second course, we recommend the boned pigeon with balsamic vinegar and the venison fillet caramelized with acacia honey.

Where to buy

Conco (Vicenza)

La bottega

Via Roma 27

Tel. 0424 704094

A wide selection of cheeses, various types of Asiago and other gastronomical delights. Also some good wines and takeaway dishes.

Enego (Vicenza)

Caseificio Finco

Via Lecche 42

Tel. 0424 490149

One of the best dairies in the uplands: you can find excellent pressed cheeses, butter and local mature cheeses here.

Marostica (Vicenza)

Casa del Parmigiano

Piazza Castello 24

Tel. 0424 75071

Luigi Castaldello, helped by his sons Erasmo and Corrado, selects cured meats and cheeses from local small producers and matures them to the right level. His specialties include garlic sausage and and various types of mature Asiago.

The mountain pasture cheeses of the Slow Food Presidium

Here is a list of mountain pastures making DOP. mature Asiago d’allevo:

Asiago:

Antonio Rodeghiero, Malga Porta Manazzo, Strada per i Larici, Loc. Porta Manazzo

Maria Luisa Pangrazio, Malga Zebio, Loc. Monte Zebio

Tarquinio Marini, Malga Dosso di Sotto, Strada per i Larici, Loc. Dosso di Sotto

Roberto Frigo, Malga Larici, Strada per i Larici, Loc. Larici

Conco (Vicenza)

Edoardo Martinello, Malga Biancoia, Loc. Biancoia

Guido e Franco Boscari, Malga Mazza Superiore, Loc. Biancoia

Gallio (Vicenza)

Luigi Pozza, Malga Mandrielle, Strada per l’Ortigara, Loc. Marcesina

Antonio Spiller, Malga Busa Fonda, Strada per le Melette, Loc. Campomulo

Grigno (Vicenza)

Antonio Cenci, Malga Valcoperta, Loc. Marcesina

Lusiana (Vicenza)

Angelo e Silvano Nicolin, Malga Campo Rossignolo, Monte Corno

Roana:

Riccardo Rela, Malga Zoveto, Loc. Cesuna, Monte Zoveto

Sergio Basso, Malga Pusterle, Strada della Valdassa, Loc. Ghertele

Piero Sardo, a gourmet and f&w writer, is a Slow Food vice-president and manager of the association’s Presidia Office

Photo: the plateau of Asiago (Marco Bruzzo)

Translation by Ailsa Wood

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