Cow's milk is the main protagonist of the Piedmontese cheese industry, sheep's milk and goat's milk are present to a lesser degree and more in traditional productions in the hills and mountains. The tradition is, however, ancient, considering that, as early as the fifteenth century, the doctor Pantaleone da Confienza, author of the "Summa laticiniorum", the first known treatise about the cheese industry, listed at least fourteen cheeses typical to the region. Some of these cheeses no longer exist, as, for example, the "caseus mordicativus" from the valleys of Ceresole Reale and of Lanzo Torinese, or the "caseus piacentinus", a probable ancestor of the modern 'grana' from the Upper Novarese (area around Novara).
Today, the Piedmontese cheeses which could be presented together on a tray are at least one hundred and seventy. Many, of course, are similar to each other: there are an infinite number of variations of the 'robiola' cheese, for example, with characteristics which are different from one town to another, and also of the 'bross' and 'toma' cheeses. But this demonstrates that, by old tradition, the Piedmontese table not only allows for, but also treasures the presence of cheese as an opening to or at the end of a meal. Eight of these cheeses have obtained the denomination of protected origin or the protected geographical location; this indicates the diffusion in our national territory not only of the product itself, but of the production of cheeses such as, for example, the 'Castelmagno' cheese, which is one of Italy's oldest cheeses, considering that the first document which gives notice of this cheese goes back to the XIII century; the document in question is concerned with an arbitrator's reward of a whole cheese of this type, considered a measure of trade, established to being equal to twelve 'dinars'. To return to more modern times, an event comes to mind in which, in 1722, Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoia assigned to the inhabitants of Castelmagno the duty to supply the feudal vassal or lord with the income of 66 lire and 10 cents annually, and the royal prerogative of nine 'rubbi' of cheese".
The Castelmagno cheese is a semi-fat cheese made principally from cow's milk with the addition of sheep's milk or goat's milk (or both). It is pressed, of a semi-hard paste, herby, matured and of a cylindrical shape with smooth sides. The rind is thin and a reddish-yellow colour: with ageing, it becomes darker and more wrinkled. The interior is crumbly and of a pearl-white or yellowish colour. When the cheese is very old, it has a goldish-yellow tone with blue veins running through it. It has a delicate flavour which becomes stronger as the cheese ripens.
It is made from the milk taken from two daily milkings, partially skimmed to separate the cream. The processing of the curd takes six days and consists of repeatedly pressing the cheese into the moulds and then proceeding to dry salting.
The ripening, which takes from two to five or six months, takes place in naturally cool and damp caves, or in premises which are regulated to offer these same conditions. When the cheeses are matured for longer, a particular type of greenish mould forms in the body of the cheese which gives it a special kind of richness of flavour. Once, the Castelmagno cheese had a more creamy consistency, but with the increase in production, it has become drier and with a tendency to crumble.
A cheese characteristic to the Langhe region is the 'Escaroun' cheese, also produced at Farigliano and in the Alps around Cuneo. It is made from goat's and sheep's milk and is of a short, cylindrical shape. After having been salted, either dry salted or in brine, it is ripened for longer or shorter lengths of time, depending on its dimensions. In this way, a thick, dark-coloured rind is formed. The interior of the cheese is a bright, straw-yellow colour and has a sharp, very well-defined taste. At the end of the ripening time, the Escaroun cheese can be somewhat dry.
It is considered as being a cheese which may be eaten at the table in its own right, but also as being a cheese for grating.
The area around Novara, in Piedmont lays claim to the paternity (notwithstanding the Lombardic name and the dispute which must still be resolved) of gorgonzola cheese; the production of this cheese is regulated by a Consortium which protects its denomination of origin which is extended to include six provinces of Lombardy (Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, Como, Milan and Pavia) and those of Novara, Vercelli and Cuneo, with the addition of the area of Casale Monferrato.
The origin of the name goes back to the middle of the eighteen hundreds. At first, this cheese was called 'stracchino', then 'green stracchino and then 'stracchino of gorgonzola'. It is a fatty cheese which is made from whole-fat cow's milk, using a special process of production and ripening which allows the formation of the moulds which have made it famous for its particular flavour and consistency.
It is one of the oldest Piedmontese cheeses and is produced mostly In the Val d'Ossola and Bettelmatt areas. It is a cow's milk cheese made only in the months from July to September when the herds feed on the fresh mountain forage, which is particularly valued above the altitude of two thousand meters (six and a half thousand feet), around the area of the Gries glacier. The cheese from Bettelmatt, semi-cooked or cooked, is similar to some degree to the Valdostana 'fontina' cheese, has a reddish rind with the interior of the cheese being a straw-yellow colour. The minimum amount of time for ageing is three or four months.
Apart from traditionally being eaten in its own right as a table cheese, the Bettlematt cheese is used in various recipes from the Ossolano area, above all being used in the filling for 'agnolotti' and for enriching various preparations of 'polenta'.
The 'Reblochon' cheese originates from the Savoy region, and its names derives from the word 'reblocher', which in old French means 'to re-milk', that is, to milk for a second time. At one time, up in the mountain pastures, the milking of the cows was controlled by a person entrusted by the owner of the herds: once this person left, along with the milk which had been collected, the cowherds secretly milked the animals a second time, obtaining a small quantity of milk of a much fatter quality. This fatter milk was used to produce the "reblochon", a widely-used cheese produced above all in the pastures high up in the Moncenisio, Val di Susa and Canavese areas, and whose specific area of origin is the Novalesa territory. It is a flavoursome cheese made from whole-fat cow's milk , produced in small cylindrical shapes weighing from three hundred grams to one kilogram (11 ounces to 2 pounds 4 ounces). The rind of the cheese, yellow or reddish in colour, is sprinkled with flour. Remembering only the most famous and widely-used, but also the most characteristic, we cannot omit a reference to the 'Seirass' cheese; this is a term used in Piedmontese dialect which means 'ricotta', which comes from the Latin seraceum which indicates the dairy product obtained from whey. 'Ricotta' cheese is used to make the 'Salignum' cheese which is a typical cheese from the Alto Canavese region, produced in particular in the area of Quincinetto. This is 'ricotta' ('seirass') spiced up with pepper, salt, cumin, red chilli pepper or wild fennel seeds.
We come to a conclusion making reference to the 'Toma' cheese, the denomination of origin for about twenty Piedmontese cheeses, each identified by the area of origin (Valle di Susa, Valle Stura, Balme, Bobbio, Boves, Cocconato, Lanzo, Pragelato etc. etc.).
The origin of the name is uncertain, but seems to derive from the old French word 'Tumon' which means 'to turn around', with reference to the need to frequently turn the moulds of the cheeses during the ripening stage. The cheese is obtained from cow's milk, and is semi-cooked, divided into two types, one being from whole fat milk or the other from semi-skimmed milk. The length of the ageing is variable, depending on the shape and the weight of the cheese, and goes from three to eighteen months.
'Toma' is appreciated as a cheese in itself to be eaten at the table (either raw or cooked under the grill), but is also used for cooking, above all for the oven-baked 'sformato di polenta'. The only 'toma' cheese to stand out from the others is the one called 'Toma di Lanzo' because it comes, in fact, from the towns of the Valle di Lanzo where the Comunita' Montana protects its production (there are about eight hundred cheese factories which produce this cheese in an artisan way) by checking that the quality is always very high.