Italian Cheese and Why Regionality Is So Important
Why does burrata from Vermont taste so different from the kind made in southern Italy? Jesse Dart on why regionality is the most important factor behind choosing a good cheese.
Looking back, it was probably one of the most defining moments of the past year. We had just been offered a warm orb of fresh burrata cheese, straight out of the pot the cheesemaker was using to craft it. It was my first time seeing the process for making a stretched curd cheese, and I was completely mesmerized. After seeing the producers working in the pot of hot curd, stretching it out with a wooden board, and quickly pulling and twisting pieces of cheese from it, you no longer believe in the work of machines. This is a handcrafted product at its best.
After arriving early that morning at the Bari airport in Italy, we had been quickly whisked onto our bus and into the Puglia countryside. Our lucullian lunch was our first meal of the seven-day trip, and by far the most memorable. When I put that first piece of burrata in my mouth, the core of Puglia was so apparent and the flavor so real that I was an instant believer in the region.
Cheese in Italy is sort of a mythical creature. It is the lifeblood of many traditional dishes across the country. The types of cheese are rather broad; from the asiago and famous Parmigiano-Reggiano in the north, to burrata and mozzarella in the south, Italy is awash with delightful dairy. But the real identity of these cheeses lies not in their names, but in the terroir, in their origin. Yes, cheeses can have terroir just as wine can, but when it comes to cheese, regionality is oftentimes overlooked. The regions of Italy, much like many countries in Europe, have developed certain methods for producing food products. This gives the products a true taste of their locales.
Cheese styles in Italy are dictated by area or region but also, unlike in the U.S., by law. No burrata in Veneto, no asiago in Puglia. Tradition dictates how to make each cheese; from the type of milk to the aging process, each one has been created to be the best example from a specific area. No discerning Italian is going to buy Piemonte mozzarella or tome from Lazio. It just doesn’t happen. Not only do these regions not produce these types of cheese (except on an industrial scale) but they’re also not primarily suited to those particular varieties.
Regionality in Italy extends deep into the food culture of the country, and some of these products and methods are slowly being exported and utilized outside Italy. In the U.S., Vermont is home to some of the most highly regarded dairies in the country. The quality of the milk is (for the most part) above average. In the southwest of the state lies the town of Bennington, and close by is Maplebrook Farms. According to their website, they use “old world cheesemaking traditions to handcraft mozzarella, ricotta, feta, burrata and other specialty cheeses.” These methods are from very specific parts of the world—ones that are thousands of miles from Vermont. Mozzarella, ricotta and burrata all come from the south of Italy; feta is from Greece.
Is this the most authentic way to represent Italian cheese in a different country?
All of these cheeses, except ricotta, are covered under the European Union’s laws on protected geographical status. They can have one of three certifications: Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and Traditional Specialty Guarantee (TSG). These certifications ensure that only products originally made in the regions are allowed into the marketplace with certain names. It is widely known that the U.S. opposes these rules for various reasons. Some feel that the PDO stamp would reduce the producers’ ability to experiment or create new products, while others believe that imposing more rules on production methods in the U.S. would reduce trade and put some producers out of work. For example, what is labeled as “Parmesan cheese” in the U.S. is not produced in its original heartland of Emilia Romagna. If the U.S. acknowledged the EU laws, then many everyday products that Americans are used to would have to be re-branded. This is why you can still find traditionally named foods in the U.S., especially cheese such as feta, burrata, mozzarella, parmesan, and the like. All of these names come from the originating region in the designated country, and as such, the EU laws protect the names and production methods.
The methods of production used in the U.S., although correct, abandon the entire idea of terroir and regionality. Is this the most authentic way to represent Italian cheese in a different country? It’s true that the burrata from Vermont will taste better than the one imported from Italy, which sat in whey while traveling across the ocean. It ends up having a slightly lactic, acidic flavor when it arrives. Yet, the Vermont burrata, while still being made by a cheesemaker from Puglia, does not stand up to the burrata made in Puglia, where it was first created and protected as a PDO cheese.
The market demands burrata, so they fill that demand with a good quality, domestic product. But what happens to the original burrata from Puglia? Dry, hot, and with a food culture connected to the sea, the entire climate works together to provide the region with the perfect combination of factors for good raw ingredients as well as a style of cheesemaking all their own. Burrata has been developed for a reason. Importing the method and style to cold, wet, mountainous Vermont leaves one feeling slightly cynical. It could be because I’ve had the real thing, or maybe because I have come to understand that the protected geographical status has meaning and thought behind it. There are critics of the laws laying claim that it limits producers’ ability to create new cheeses or to experiment and evolve their style. I disagree. I find the PGS system is actually working to preserve not only the product itself, but the methods, history, culture, and terroir so important to each one.
I’m not preaching for organic, sustainable, or even good/clean/fair products. I can only claim terroir and locality in my argument. Should we make burrata in Vermont? Should we make provolone or asiago or even brie in the U.S.? Sure. Sometimes domestic European-style cheeses are the best option. But don’t give up on the original with all the aspects that give it the flavor it’s meant to have. And of course, when in Italy, be sure to try the local products: cheese, wine, cured meat. Remember that when you indulge in them, you are tasting the complete essence of the place, exactly as you should.
Jesse Dart is a writer and photographer living in Italy. A graduate of the Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche in Italy where he studied food culture & communication, he also has a master’s degree in anthropology.