A new cheese arrived today at work. No matter how busy things get or how hectic the preliminary setup for service becomes, I always get excited when it’s time for a cheese “briefing”. The cheese in question today is one that has been in production for centuries, but is new to me. It’s called Castelmagno and it is delicious.
Castelmagno is from Piedmont in the Northern part of Italy. The region is known for many culinary delights, especially its fantastic wines Barolo and Barbaresco. The earliest recorded mention of this cheese was in 1277 when it was used for trade. It is also reported that it frequently appeared at Charlemagne’s dinner table. Likely, the cheese existed much before the thirteenth century to have been considered a commodity at the time, and its popularity and reputation had to have been widespread for it became a mainstay of a world leader’s diet.
Castelmagno comes in a large drum and looks a bit like a giant blue cheese with a natural rind on the outside. In fact, Castelmagno can develop blue mold under the right circumstances, though it is rare. If it does, it is considered a delicacy, but Charlemagne reputedly cut the blue parts off when he ate it – I guess there is no accounting for taste! Without the blue mold, it remains a lovely subtle and tangy cheese with an appealing crumbly texture and layers of cascading flavors. It reminds me a lot of the wines from the region – intensely mineral and with a rough-hewn and somewhat rustic beauty that needs a seasoned palate to fully appreciate its virtues. I can’t say that this is a cheese that everyone will love the first time they try it, but it is one that deserves consideration for its truly unique personality.
I couldn’t help but think how delicious Castelmagno would be with a bit of quince paste or honey, the traditional accompaniment. I have also read that it is popular in Piedmont for cooking and is sometimes melted into risotto or served simply grated on top of fresh egg noodles. The crumbly texture leads me to believe that it would melt nicely, just as an aged cheddar would. I’m looking forward to seeing if it turns up on our menu anywhere, or maybe I’ll pick some up myself and see if I can use it in my own kitchen.
Castelmagno has DOP status, which means that the Italian government, to some degree, controls its production. It is currently made with pasteurized cow’s milk, but can also have smaller amounts of goat’s and sheep’s milk added. The Italians classify it as a blue cheese even if it doesn’t have blue veins. It is usually aged from two to five months, and some affineurs age it for longer.
If you can find Castelmagno, it’s a cheese worth checking out. Keep an eye out for it at your local cheese shop and you’re in for a unique Italian experience that is fit for an emperor.