Cheese basicsThere are plenty of types of cheese, but in the Maremma, we have a thing for sheep. It sounds way less appealing than cow's milk, but it's milder than goat's milk and doesn't taste like socks. And before you get excited, we don't make buffalo mozzarella - try further south. We also don't make parmesan - that's up north. There are three main cheese categories: fresh, semi-aged and "stagionato" or aged. - a fresh cheese, think pecorino, will have a mild flavour and a lovely light colour that closely resembles milk. It's perfect for sandwiches and salads or when you're not looking to overpower the other ingredients. - an aged cheese, think parmesan, will get stronger in flavour the longer it's been aged. An aged pecorino will be harder to cut and a darker gold colour. It's great in risottos or on crackers when you really want to taste the cheese.
A buyer's guide
You're in Italy, so why go to the supermarket, when you can get fantastic cheeses from the local cheesemongers themselves?
Some general rules:
- Try before you buy. A cheesemonger will cut a sliver of the cheese you're eying, so you know if you like it.
- Even in somewhere as rural as the Maremma, you're not guaranteed locally made products. We have a company called Latte Maremma that doesn't, as I was shocked to find out, actually use Maremman milk despite what's written on the bottle. If you're buying wheels, make sure the label includes something along the lines of "fatto con latte locale" (made with local milk).
- If you're a cheese novice, don't dive in straight for the gorgonzola. Acclimatise yourself with milder cheeses.
- The same applies for cheese platters. Strong and mouldy cheese can dull your tastebuds, so when you're putting together a cheese board, make sure your guests try the milder cheeses first or they won't be able to savour them later.
- Aged cheese don't necessarily need to be kept in the fridge. They're actually better off in a cool place that's dry and dark.
The Maremman musts
One of the things that I absolutely love about local cheeses is the range of flavourings that is used not just in the cheese, but on the rind. You'll find cheese aged in oak barrels, coated in hay and peppercorns, and stuffed with chili or truffles. In those cases, you have to eat the rind. That's where all the flavour is.
My top Maremman cheeses:
- The classic pecorino: A good semi-hard pecorino is the Maremma's answer to cheddar and parmesan - we put it on everything. When buying, you want to make sure your cheese is milk white and soft to the touch. Grate it over pasta, shove it in a sandwich or eat cubes of it while watching TV. It's DOP.
- The red wine rind: Why pair red wine and cheese, when you can eat both at once? This amazing pecorino has a blood red rind that comes from months aged in Morellino di Scansano. You want to enjoy it on its own.
- Guttus: My undisputed local favourite. Forget gorgonzola. Forget Roquefort. This blue cheese is strong and spicy in all the right places. It is not one for cheese novices, but goes great with honey and walnuts.
- Pane del pastore: A super fresh cheese that's eaten days after its made. It's a mix of cow and sheep's milk and is a great alternative to mozzarella on bruschetta.
- Ricotta Maremmana: We are not by any means the only region that makes ricotta, but ours is a sheep and cow milk mix that is super fresh. Eat this the day you buy it or chuck it. It's not smooth or runny like the ricotta you buy in supermarkets, but crumbly and perfect for desserts or spread over toast.
- Cave or "grotta" aged cheeses: There are a bunch of these around. Seggiano makes the very famous Fossatello. It's a strong flavoured pecorino aged for more than three months in natural caves, perfect for shaving over pasta.
My top producers
Seggiano is once again the undisputed pecorino champion of the Maremma. They learnt the cheese making tradition from Sicilian and Sardinian shepherds in the 19th century. That said, I think my hometown of Manciano is giving them a pretty good run for their money.
If you're going to buy Maremman cheese, head for a caseificio. Caseificios or dairies make sure your milk is local. Usually they'll work with more than one dairy farmer. So you won't be able to guarantee that your cheese comes from one herd, but at least they'll be neighbours.
- Caseificio Manciano sells 5 out of 6 of my top cheeses. You can live out your cheese fantasies in their gorgeous store at the heart of Manciano.
- Caseificio Maremma is the undisputed king. They have the best range of cheeses, including chocolate pecorino, pear pecorino and pistacchio pecorino. Their store is in Follonica.
- Il Caseificio Inno al Sole has a selection of cheese that is almost as impressive as their farm store. They do the province's best fresh and semi-aged cheeses and cheese ice cream. They're in Grosseto.
- Caseificio Seggiano: Go no further for the classic pecorino, made just like they did centuries ago in the heart of Seggiano.