The Emperor’s Cheese

28 Sep 2009

After Cheese 2009 (September 18-22), we delve into the Slow Food archives to find out more about one of a very special product from Italy’s Trentino region

These days Vezzena cheese is in the hands of Rodolfo Bertacchini, literally as well as figuratively. He is the cheesemaker in charge of production at the cooperative cheese dairy at Lavarone in Trentino, where he arrived after working for many years with his father, first making Grana in Piedmont then at the Caseificio Primiero dairy producing Trentingrana.

Although there are 11 members supplying milk to the cooperative, Bertacchini makes Vezzena mainly in summer, using the milk from just two herds. The cheese is the dairy’s pride and joy; indeed, in some ways it is emblematic of traditional Trentino cheesemaking. As long ago as 1923, there were indications of the cheeses to be produced in the outline operational plan for the Istituto Agrario at San Michele, published in the Almanacco Agrario of that year by Trento’s Provincial Agriculture Council.

The list naturally included Vezzena, of which it was noted, “For Trentino, the most important cheese is Vezzena. Excellent as a table cheese from seven months to one year old, after that period it becomes a full-flavored grating cheese. Vezzena will be a major part of Trentino cheesemaking”.

Unfortunately, the Almanacco’s forecast proved inaccurate. Vezzena has remained significant, and if anything its prestige has been enhanced, but output has dropped to 8,000 cheeses a year. The number of dairy farmers has, of course, diminished too but it has been the diversion of milk to other uses that has withdrawn milk, energy and resources from this noble alpine toma cheese. It will be no easy task to build production up again. But the foundations remain: there is still the know-how, there is still the milk from the Vezzena mountain dairies and there is growing interest on the part of the consumer.

Even after maturing for a long period, Vezzena retains remarkable softness and butteriness. It also has distinctive aromas, depending on the period of pasture. If made with June milk, for example, it has a delicate, garlic-like note. Experts distinguish it from mass-produced Asiago by its characteristic note of chive. The production method is standard for this area of the Alps but the irresistible subtleties of Vezzana’s palate are all down to the forage of the high alpine pasturelands whose flavors it captures.

The production method is as follows. The cheesemaker selects the best milk from the dairies to prepare a milk-inoculate. Fresh, part-skimmed cow’s milk from the evening milking is mixed with the following morning’s milking. It is heated slowly, the milk-inoculate being added at 33-35°C along with bovine rennet. Coagulation occurs after 20-25 minutes. The coagulate may be turned over with a tool called a spanarola and is then broken up with another instrument known as a lira until it is the size of grains of corn.

It is cooked slowly at 45-48°C for 30-40 minutes to allow the solids to deposit on the bottom. Part of the whey is removed and the curds are cut into individual cheese-sized portions. These are put between rounds of wood and pressed. The weights are removed in the evening and the cheeses are moved to a warm, damp room, known as the frescura. Finally comes the salting, either dry or in brine.

There are various trials under way to see which of the two methods gives better results. So far, it has been ascertained that dry salting gives more assertive aromas and tastes while brined cheeses have more delicate sensory characteristics. After salting, the cheeses are placed on wooden planks to mature, where they are cleaned and rubbed with linseed oil once a month.

This, with one or two variations, is the typical procedure used for medium-fat mountain cheeses suitable for maturing. And it is when it has matured that Vezzena reveals its class. After a year or a year and a half, the small holes of this intensely yellow-colored cheese disappear, its texture becomes more flaky, its aromas gain complexity and fine herbaceous and spicy sensations fill the taster’s mouth.

In short, only after the right amount of time does Vezzena truly become Vezzena and only then is it clear why the emperor Franz Josef wanted it on his table every day.

Piero Sardo is president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

Adaptation from an article first printed in SlowArk 32

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