With the growth in quality and quantity of Wisconsin artisan and specialty cheeses in the past decade, I am often asked: "Can Wisconsin cheeses today rival the great European imports?"
Well, yes and no. While there are scores of amazing European cheeses that simply don't have an equal in America, there are perhaps an equal amount of American Original cheeses that don't have a rival in Europe. That's because the traditions that often make classic European cheeses so amazing also limits innovation in crafting new ones.
Here in America, we've got no lack of innovation. With less than 300 years of tradition to our name, we've got no PDO, DOC or AOC cheeses. Virtually anything goes. Some might even argue American cheesemakers have cheesemaking freedom that many European cheesemakers might envy.
But that doesn't mean American, and especially Wisconsin cheesemakers, don't still look to their European counterparts for inspiration. Perhaps no country knows this better than Italy. Wisconsin cheesemakers have been studying Italian cheeses for more than 100 years, trying to duplicate the Italian greats.
Here's a look at three different categories of Italian cheeses and three Wisconsin cheesemakers who are striving to equal, or might I dare say rival, their Italian counterparts.
Round 1: Asiago Fresco
Agriform of Italy vs Saxon Creamery of Wisconsin
In Italy, Asiago Fresco is made in the Veneto region, located in the far northwest quadrant of the country. It's named after the village of Asiago, one of seven villages situated on a high plateau in the Italian Alps. The region has a colorful history. The locals, most of whom have German roots, as the region was populated in the 1200's by Bavarians, still speak their own language, a German/Italian mix. Because the area was originally so isolated, the residents of the seven villages banded together in the 1300's to receive protection from three powerful families – the Ezzelini, Scaligeri and Visconti families. The region had its own political and administrative autonomy until Napoleon invaded in 1807. Then the territory came under Austrian rule until it was annexed to Italy through an international accord in 1866.
Today, two traditional Asiago cheeses are made: Asiago Pressato, made with whole milk and pressed, is aged only a matter of days. It is mild and buttery. The second, Asiago d'Allevo, is made from partially skimmed milk and and is sold in three stages of ripeness: mezzano, aged 3 to 8 months; vecchio, aged 9 to 18 months; and stravecchio, aged up to 2 years. All types are found in the U.S. market.
Asiago Fresco, meanwhile, seems to be a newer hybrid. It is made from whole milk, pasteurized, and aged 20-40 days. It much more citrusy in flavor. The most common Italian version found in the U.S. is made by Agri-form, one of the larger producers in the Veneto region, and distributed by Atalanta Foods. It is an excellent table cheese and melts well on a panini.
The Wisconsin version of Asiago Fresco is made by Saxon Creamery of Cleveland. In the spring, summer and fall, many of the Saxon cheeses are made from the milk of pastured cows. Originally owned by the Karl Klessig and Jerry Heimerl families, last year, Wisconsin dairy farmer and veterinarian Dr. Kenn Buelow invested in the company. Cheeses are now made by Master Cheesemaker Jeff Mattes, who is rapidly branching out into some different styles, including the little known Asiago Fresco.
Mattes delivers. The Saxon version is equally citrusy and fresh tasting, with no off flavors and a clean finish. The texture is almost the same as the Italian version, and the cheeses are nearly identical. Find Saxon Creamery Asiago Fresco at Glorioso's in Milwaukee.
Round 2: Fontina
Fontina D’Aosta DOP of Italy vs BelGioioso Cheese of Wisconsin
Today, versions of Fontina are made in Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and of course, the United States. The Danish and Swedish versions are typically covered in red paraffin wax, made from pasteurized milk, and are mild in taste. The Italian version, however, is made twice a day from the unpasteurized milk of Valdostana cows that graze on Alpine grasses, and is a washed-rind cheese. Aged three months, it is bathed with a mixture of brine and brevibacterium linens, which leaves it with an orangish-brown rind and smelly aroma.
Fontina D'Aosta is an Italian DOP cheese, meaning it is name-protected and may only be made in the Val d'Aosta region. It is elastic and supple, with a rich, sweet, buttery flavor and mushroomy aroma.
The Wisconsin version of Italian Fontina is made by BelGioioso Cheese. Aged more than 60 days, this is a very appealing, semi-soft mild cheese with a silky texture and a sweet, buttery flavor. It does not, however have the Fontina D'Aosta's washed-rind, so is instead much milder in flavor and smell. Whereas the Italian version has small irregular holes, BelGioioso Fontina is smooth and creamy. That's probably because it is intended for an American market, which, as a rule, does not overly care for stinky cheeses.
BelGioioso is no stranger to Italian cheese. In 1979, a man by the name of Errico Auricchio moved his family from Italy to America to start his own cheese company. A hundred years before, his great-grandfather had started an Italian cheese company named Auricchio. Today, it is the largest producer of Provolone in Italy.
But because Errico wanted to do his own thing, he moved to Wisconsin and brought along a couple Master Euoprean cheesemakers with him. He began making authentic Italian cheeses, and today, has built a cheese empire, building seven factories, all in the Fox Valley, each specializing in a different style of Italian cheese, from Burrata to Provolone to Gorgonzola and beyond. Each is made using Wisconsin milk from surrounding farms. BelGioioso does Wisconsin Italian cheeses proud, and their Fontina is no exception. You can find it in most specialty cheese departments.
Round 3: Parmesan
Academia Barilla Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP vs Sartori of Wisconsin
The mammoth cheese, considered by some to be worth its weight in gold, is made in large copper cauldrons and formed into 85-pound drums. Quality is based on five factors that have been maintained throughout centuries to make this cheese one of the most famous in the world.
First and foremost is quality of pastures and quality of milk. Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced with milk from two milkings – evening and morning – with milk from the morning partially skimmed. The milk itself comes from cows raised on selected pastures only in the five approved regions.
Second: artisanal production methods have been unchanged for seven centuries. The Consortium is made up of a group of 650 small, artisanal cheese producers located in a specific zone of production and are subject by law to preserve the centuries old production methods and quality of the product.
Third is the natural aging process, which can last up to three years. By the end, wheels have developed a compact, grainy texture and strong, but not spicy, flavor. Parmigiano falls into the category of hard Italian cheeses generally referred to as grana, based on their granular texture.
Fourth: Complete absence of preservatives, additives or colorings in the milk and cheese. Period.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the strict control of the Consortium. It defends and protects the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano, overseeing how it is used and where it is produced. The Consortium is also responsible for building the brand and monitoring the standards of production.
The Parmigiano-Reggiano I enjoy is produced only in the Reggio Emilia region by Academia Barilla. This particular company uses milk exclusively from small hillside dairies and ages wheels to 18 months. It is brittle and hard, with a pale yellow rind. Inside, the cheese is golden with a crystalline texture and sweet, fruity, tangy flavor, like fresh pineapple. It boasts a salty finish, having been brined for about 30 days before being transferred to an aging room.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin version is Sartori SarVecchio, one of the best Parmesans made in the United States. Aged at least 20 months, it is made from pasteurized milk in 30 pound wheels with a natural rind.
Sartori Cheese’s headquarters are in Plymouth, but the cheese is made in Antigo. Started in 1939 by Paolo Sartori and Louis Rossini, when they founded S&R Cheese Corp in Plymouth, the company changed its name to Sartori Foods in 1996. Today, they employ three master cheesemakers who not only create Old World classics but new American Originals.
Aged, crystalline, nutty, and grate-able, SarVecchio is a worthy rival to Old World Parmigiano-Reggiano, and routinely places first or second in national and international contests. You can find it in most any store where fine cheese is sold.
And there you have it: three Old World favorites vs. New World upstarts. I'd argue with a contest like this, there really are no losers. Only we - the consumers - win.