July 29, 2008

Italy, part 4: Asiago

You've heard of it before, the much loved Italian cheese called Asiago. Well, we went to the town for which it is named. The family I was traveling with has relatives in the town of Asiago and we went to visit some of the remaining family members. It was a nice change of scenery: from the lake to the mountains, East to Vicenza and then North on a winding little road to the foothills of the Alps and the cute little town made famous by cheese.

The scenery changed dramatically during two hour-drive. I looked out the window and saw beloved mountains (which I miss so much as a Colorado girl living in the South) and green hillsides, the architecture resembling more Switzerland than Italy.

This region is actually not far from the border of Austria. In some ways, they have more in common with their neighbors to the North than with Romans or Southern Italians.

Like this lunch for example: grilled Asiago cheese (of course) with potatoes, polenta and zucchine. And to go with it-- a frothy beer instead of wine. There was wine to be had, but this just seemed to hit the spot while we sat on the patio in front of our hotel called the Sporting Residence (huh?)

In addition to meeting with some relatives and meticulously going over the family tree with sweet people whose memories have seen better days (a great challenge for my interpreting skills), we had a wonderful local guide named Stefano. He spoke near perfect English and took us to his father's trattoria for dinner the first night where we ate little colorful gnocchi and other handmade pastas and cheeses from the area.

The next day Stefano took us to a local cheese factory in a town down the hill from Asiago. After a treacherous and curvy drive that offered some spectacular views for those of us able to look out and not get sick, we pulled into the parking lot of a major cheese factory, unmistakable by virtue of this enormous wheel of cheese on a cart:

Upon entering we were told to suit up for our extensive tour of the cheese-making operations, all of us looking this silly...

The place was very big and so much work goes into the production of cheese! It's a long process with many different steps for most varieies, as the aging in particular temperatures and water brines is what gives certain cheeses their taste and value. In this factory they make not only Asiago, but also the prized Grana Padano (which is aged a minumum of 6 mos. and up to 2 years), provolone, mozzarella, ricotta, and others that I had never heard of.

Seeing the complexity of it all and the amount of equipment and raw materials needed, not to mention the human labor, since a lot of it is done by hand and not just by machines, makes you wonder how profitable cheesemaking in the old-fashioned way really is for these people. Despite the fact that this was one of the biggest cheese producers in Italy, they still do things in a traditional way. For example, the milk is brought in every morning very early from cows that live in the nearby hills and is transferred from trucks into huge vats with pipes that then send the milk inside to be used in that day's operations. This happens every single day, except Sunday. You don't make cheese with anything but the freshest milk.

And men are required to stir the huge copper vats with special tools that take each round of cheese and roll it up the sides forming the perfect wheel of grana padano. We asked if there wasn't a machine that could do this and they said, "No, it can only be done this way."

We tasted this fresh ricotta, just made and still warm. It melted in your mouth and was like no other ricotta I've ever tasted.

And, at the end of the tour, we were led back to the little shop and given a generous sampling of the cheeses we had seen along with some local wines of course. It was remarkable to me that we were led around by the head honcho, the director of operations, the main cheesemaker himself, who also then raised a glass with us. And this on a day when he explained that a co-worker had died recently and a lot of workers were away at the funeral and he was needed all over the plant.

It means that no matter how big or how small you are, in Italy the abilitly to welcome strangers and take the time to show them firsthand why you are proud of your heritage is what makes them truly special people. I can't imagine being treated this way at Kraft or Monsanto. And what's more, the cheese was really, really good!