Sunday, September 22, 2013
On Location: Luigi Guffanti Formaggi per Tradizione in Italy
It could be that we arrived after 36 hours of traveling via delayed planes, bus and automobile, or that my luggage was "untraceable" via British Airways, or that I was facing the fact I'd be wearing the same clothes I left home in for days, but the emotion that cheese can elicit always surprises me. And Carlo Fiori Guffanti, our tour guide for a 2-hour visit to one of the most famous aging houses of Europe summed it up best: "Cheese is easy, but not simple."
An exceptionally kind, small man with bright eyes, fluent in Italian, French and German, but halting English, Carlo Fiori knows cheese. His grandfather, Luigi Guffanti, began to season Gorgonzola in 1876 in an abandoned silver mine in Valganna, in the Varese province of the Lombardy region of northern Italy. With the mine's consistent year-round temperature and humidity, those first Guffanti cheeses matured so well that Luigi quickly cornered the markets. His sons, Carlo and Mario, at the beginning of the 1900′s, exported as far as Argentina and California, where people of the Piedmont and Lombardy had emigrated.
Today, Carlo Fiori Guffanti is the elder of two upcoming Guffanti generations set to take over an operation aging 180 types of cheese. And if he teaches them half of what he taught us over the course of two hours, the Guffanti house of cheese will endure forever.
Here's how our tour started: with the stomach of a goat, aged five years, cut into tiny pieces for us to eat. It turns out that goat stomach tastes a lot like goat cheese, except stronger. Carlo's point: cheese starts with basic ingredients: milk, enzymes taken from the stomach of an animal, cultures and salt.
"Cheese was not invented, it was discovered. It is the result of men who discovered that instead of eating animals for protein, they could have them eat green grass in the summer, hay in the winter, and then use their milk to make a new kind of protein: cheese," Carlo told us. "Cheese is the only way man has found to preserve milk, and it has changed the world."
At that moment, he brought out a board of nearly a dozen Robiola cheese rounds, one of Guffanti's more famous cheeses. They ranged in age from just right to really scary, but Carlo's point was that they were all still edible. "Cheese never dies. It just changes," he said. I made the mistake of referring to him as an amazing "affineur," and he quickly corrected me that there is no word in Italian for a man who ages cheese for a living. "Affineur" is French. The closest words are "stagionatura", which means seasoning, or "affinate", which means refined, or improved. I guess perhaps Carlo is an "affinater" which is a word I pretty much just made up.
After the tour, it was time to go upstairs. "I have shown you the cheeses. Now they will speak for themselves," Carlo told us. And they did. The Guffanti staff had set up an impressive spread of more than a dozen Guffanti aged cheeses, including a one-year aged Gorgonzla Piccante, the cheese that first put Luigi Guffanti on the map.
After we were nearly done, Carlo brought out two more cheeses: my favorite, Robiolo, and a special treat: 2-year Comte, cut from a series of wheels we had drooled over in the aging rooms.
Then it was time to say goodbye. Many cheek kisses and thank you's later, I talked Carlo into signing the brim of the Luigi Guffanti hat I had bought in the cheese shop. "Wear it the next time you come to see me," he said with a smile. Will do.
Next up: Bra Cheese Fair and checking off another item on Jeanne's bucket list.
All photos by Uriah Carpenter.