The history of Asiago dates back to ancient times, originating from Altopiano dei Sette Comuni (or Highland of the Seven Municipalities) where ‘Asiago’ was the name of the capital town. Somewhere around the year one thousand, a cheese came into production which came from the milk taken from sheep who were left to pasture freely and which were used for the production of both foodstuffs and wool. Around the year fifteen hundred, the sheep were then replaced by cattle and thus began a production similar to the one today. Asiago is the most famous cheese of the Veneto region, as well as being one of the most important of all Italian cheeses, protected by its DOP (protected denomination of origin) status which a consortium grants to two types of Asiago: the Asiago ‘d’allevo’ (‘raised’), which is the aged version, and the Asiago ‘pressato’ (‘pressed’), which is fresh. It must be noted that this is not merely the same cheese matured at different levels but is actually the product of two different types of workmanship, and as such, the mark of DOP origin is assigned based upon these two methods.
The raised, or aged, Asiago is the most sought-after by collectors, even though it is produced on a much smaller scale than that of the pressed Asiago (the ratio is 40,000 quintals a year of raised as opposed to 150,000 of pressed). It is classified in three different levels of intensity of flavour, which varies accordingly to the length of maturation: "mezzano" (or ‘medium’), which is aged three to five months, "vecchio" (or ‘old’), aged up to nine months, or "stravecchio" (or ‘extra old’), aged for over nine months and up to two years. All of the cheese itself is of the semi-fat variety with a hard interior texture, is only semi-cooked and furthermore made using exclusively cow's milk obtained from two milkings of which one is partially skimmed to separate the cream. After coagulation, the curd is amassed in the appropriate moulds where it stays for a few days; the moulds are then transferred to be salted in brine, and finally placed in a room set aside for maturation. Asiago is produced in a cylindrical form, ranging in diameter anywhere from thirty to thirty-six centimetres (twelve to fourteen inches), with a height between nine and twelve centimetres (three and a half and five inches) and a weight that varies somewhere from eight to twelve kilograms (seventeen to twenty six pounds). Its rind is smooth and regular, encasing an interior which is straw-yellow in colour and quite compact save for some finely-scattered minute holes which are interspersed throughout. The taste ranges from very delicate to strong, based upon how long the maturation process has been allowed to proceed - with the cheese becoming increasingly sharper over time. Likewise, its consistency, which when fresh may be cut cleanly with a knife, tends to flake easily much like that of Grana Padano as the ageing process continues.
Pressed Asiago is made only from whole milk but what makes the production technique of this particular cheese unique, beyond the mere fact that the milk is not skimmed, is the following procedure. The curd is cooked to a slightly inferior temperature, and is then placed in specific moulds constructed of a steel and plastic material with perforated walls. It is pressed, dry-salted, and then salted again in brine. Finally it is ripened for only twenty to forty days and no longer. The result is a semi-cooked fat cheese, weighing from eleven to fifteen kilograms (twenty four to thirty three pounds), fifteen centimetres (six inches) in height with a diameter from thirty to forty centimetres (twelve to 16 inches). The thin, elastic rind which is easily cut, reveals an interior white or slightly pale yellow cheese with pronounced eyeing and a taste which tends to be delicate.
Asiago is produced throughout the area comprised of all the provinces of Vicenza and Trento along with the bordering communes of Vincenza's provinces (between Carmignano di Brenta and Rovolon) and of Treviso (the mountainous band between Piave and Vicentino).
Both types of Asiago are perfectly suitable as table cheeses. Raised Asiago has a more intense flavour and when aged at length is also frequently called upon in grated form as an integral part of numerous recipes of the Veneto region. Due to its high nutritional value, pressed Asiago, on the other hand, is principally utilised as a substitute for meat or for other food.
Typical to the region, though now extremely difficult to find, is this cheese which was once made in Alpine huts. It belongs to an ancient tradition and is made according to methods that would today be considered against every rule. It is occasionally possible to find the rare cheesemaker that produces it and then it is really a true delicacy. Made with raw skimmed milk which is un-pasteurised, it is cooked only once. The curd is then collected in wicker baskets, allowing the serum to drip. Afterwards the product is dry-salted. Back in former times the moulds were aged either covered with clay or even left to ripen under the hay or the straw in the barn. For all practical purposes, aged Morlacco cheese no longer exists in present times. In its place, however, is the fresh version, available only in the summer, when the cows are put out to pasture. Distinguished by its straw-yellow coloured rind and its soft ivory-white inside, it has very little eyeing and a salty, slightly vinegary taste which is very interesting. Not intended to be used in cooking, Morlacco is consumed exclusively as a table cheese.
Here is another cheese made from cow's milk collected in two milkings, one of which is partially skimmed for cream. This one in particular is produced in the Piave valley between Belluno and Feltre, more specifically in a dairy cooperative known as the "Cooperativa Latte Brusche". It has notable similarities with the more well-known Montasio cheese, and likewise shares many of the same methods of workmanship. The interior is compact, easy to cut, has no eyeing, and is a pale straw-yellow colour. Salting is done in brine and it is ready in its freshest variety after two months of maturation. For the medium-aged variety six months are needed, and after ten months it is finally considered "stravecchio" or extra-old. With the passing of time, Piave cheese continues to harden and becomes an excellent cheese for grating, while even maintaining its substantially sweet and delicate taste which characterises it before ageing. It is manufactured in a cylindrical shape with a height of eight centimetres (three inches), a diameter of thirty-two centimetres (twelve and a half inches), and a weight of somewhere around six kilograms (13 pounds).
The fresh and medium-aged versions are excellent table cheeses, with the extra-old variety being the quintessential accompaniment to oven-baked polenta or frequently used grated on top of the regional Veneto pasta dishes.