Two years ago, I wrote this post about the cheeses I had on hand in my refrigerator. Thanks to a program called EAT (European Art of Taste), an initiative supported by the European Union and the Italian Government, I now know a whole lot more about cheese – and specifically provolone [pro-voh-LOH-nay] cheese – than I did back then. I also have to say that I will never again eat a piece of cheese without appreciation for the amount of work that goes into making it.
As part of the EAT program, I recently traveled to Cremona, in the heart of the Italy’s provolone-making Lombardia region to visit the Auricchio cheese-production unit. As one of Italy’s oldest cheese manufacturing companies, the Auricchio brand has become synonymous with provolone cheese. With good reason too – Gennaro Auricchio, the founder of the company, is widely credited with having discovered an unusual kind of rennet that gives today’s provolone its distinctive flavor. He was also amongst the first of the provola cheesemakers from Southern Italy’s Campania region to head north in search of a better milk supply. Provola? Yes, provola. “Provolone” merely means “large provola”.
The making of provolone
Provolone was originally manufactured from buffalo milk, but is today a cow’s-milk cheese. Like mozzarella, it is a “pulled” or “stretched” cheese – as opposed to, say, Cheddar, or even Indian paneer, which are both “pressed” cheeses. While I do not intend to bore you with the details of every step of the process (check out the gallery below) – I do want to spend a minute on the part that stopped me dead in my trigger-happy tracks.
The kneading and shaping of provolone cheese is done by hand, in almost boiling-hot water. Lifting huge hunks of milk solid – each about 40Kg – and pummeling them into the right consistency takes a lot of muscle power, and the workers’ hands are as rough and callused as any carpenter’s. Ditto for the workers who spend all day tying the finished cheeses in raffia and hanging them up for the aging process. I can never consume a piece of cheese again without thinking of the hard physical labor that has gone into making it.
Provolone Val Padana (of the Po Valley) is a D.O.P. cheese. D.O.P. stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta, which translates to “Protected Designation of Origin”. This means that the European Commission (Agriculture and Rural Development) has to certify it as locally produced from start to finish (and not merely distributed or manufactured locally). In other words, in order to be labelled “provolone”, the cheese must be made in a specific region, from milk that comes from cows in that very region – and it must be manufactured by a specific process whose every step is pre-defined and benchmarked against rigorous production standards. Currently, the Consorzio Tutela Provolone Valpadana – the body that ensures compliance with the EU’s PDO requirements – authorizes fewer than a dozen manufacturers of provolone cheese. What this means to you, the consumer, is that if you buy a cheese marked “provolone”, you are assured of its quality and origin.
Choose your cheese
There are primarily two variants of provolone – “dolce“, meaning “sweet”, and “piccante“, meaning “piquant” or sharp. The only difference between the two lies in their respective aging periods – dolce provolone is aged for up to three months; while the piccante variant is aged for between three months to a year. The even stronger stravecchio provolone is aged for between 14 months and three years. Both the mild and the sharp versions of provolone are also available smoked (affumicato).
Provolone starts out soft, with a light, pale yellow color. As it ages, it deepens into a rich golden yellow and firms up a little. When young, this semi-hard cheese has a creamy texture and a sweetish, milky flavor; as it matures, it assumes salty, almost spicy notes – and hardens significantly. Note then, that a pale provolone that crumbles when cut has dried out rather than “matured”; on the other hand, a darker provolone that crumbles has aged – a lot. Exercise your judgement while buying.
Storage and usage
Despite having repeatedly read that cheese needs to “breathe”, and that it should therefore never be wrapped in plastic, I ventured to ask this seemingly dumb question of an Italian technical lead at the Auricchio cheese factory in Cremona: what’s the best way to store cheese? Advice from the horse’s mouth: Minimize contact with air, or the cheese will continue to age (and dry out) or worse, develop mold. The best way to prevent air contact is to wrap the provolone tightly in foil or clingwrap. Also, be sure to store it in the warmest part of your refrigerator - usually the door. Properly stored, provolone will last two to three weeks – and longer if it has already been aged (rule of thumb: the shelf life of any cheese depends on its moisture content, so the harder the cheese, the longer it will keep. Aged provolone, therefore, will keep longer than the softer “dolce” variety).
In the event that your provolone does develop some mold, don’t toss the whole thing out. Because it is a semi-hard cheese, it can still be used, even with mold growth. All you have to do is cut off an inch or so around and below the mold spot, being sure not to allow your knife to touch the mold and thereby spread its spores.
Eating and enjoying provolone
As far as pairings go, I’m certainly no wine aficionado, but I can tell you that a dolce provolone tastes great with younger wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Beaujolais, while the piccante version works better with reds like Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, or Chianti.
As for eating, I love nibbling provolone on its own, or sometimes on bread or crackers. However, you could also:
- Serve it with tomatoes, olives, roasted aubergine or roasted red peppers as an appetizer. Or as a dessert, with fruit such as apples, figs, pears, or melon.
- Put its extraordinary melt-ability to use in a fondue, sauce, souffle, soup, omelette, or grilled sandwich. Or as the topping on a pizza or a baked dish.
- Cut it into thick slices, brush lightly with olive oil, press oregano and chilli flakes into it, and grill. In Argentina, this is called a “provoleta“.
Whichever way you choose to consume it, your body will thank you – provolone is a rich source of calcium, phosphorous, and protein. And what of its high fat and cholesterol content, you ask? Sorry, but I’ve suddenly gone deaf.