Getting back to Italians and their food – I’m going to once again make gross generalizations based on where I live in Orvieto.
While Italians say that they have just as many different cheeses as the French, in my little tri-region area (Umbria, Tuscany, Lazio) local pride once again dictates what’s available to us, and therefore it’s difficult to get anything other than pecorino (sheep cheese). Now I must say that it’s quite good, and they’ve been incredibly inventive as to what they do with it. For instance, it can be fresh and soft, medium-aged or aged long enough to harden and take on some of the qualities of Parmigiana. Then they might age it wrapped in grape leaves, or packed in ash or straw. They can wash its rind in red wine. They might sprinkle red pepper flakes or whole black peppercorns through it, or even pieces of black truffle. These are just 10 of the many different things that can be done, but to me the bottom line is that it’s still just 1 cheese: pecorino.
I guess I needn’t tell you that the people around here ADORE their own pecorino. I’m sure they’d be able to tell you the difference between cheese made in the Pienza area (48 miles north) versus the Pitigliano area (32 miles west) versus what’s made here in Orvieto. In the US, 48 miles is considered pretty much in our own back yard, but not in Italy when it comes to local food. Actually, I have to admit that even I can tell the difference between our pecorino and pecorino Romano (from Rome) or Sardo (from Sardinia).
Up until a couple of years ago, when a restaurant offered a “cheese plate”, it usually consisted of three pieces of pecorino done up in different guises. And then a young woman with refined tastes had the audacity to serve – are you ready for this??? – GOAT cheese on the cheese plate in her restaurant! It was the cheese equivalent of finding chicken in green curry sauce on the menu.
What had happened, speaking of audacity, was that two families of foreigners (people not from Umbria) had gotten together to start a goat farm in the beautiful countryside about 15 miles from Orvieto, and after tasting their cheeses, the refined young woman realized that they made great stuff. Of course word got out and now lots of restaurants are offering these goat cheeses. I suppose it’s justified because at least the goats are grazing in Umbrian fields.
I’m assuming that in Puglia, Italy’s heel, or Piemonte in the northwest, or any of the other regions, you will find a similar number of variations on whatever their local cheeses are. Just as we’ll probably never see these in Orvieto, they might not have even 1 pecorino.
The three exceptions to this local-cheeses-only rule are, or course, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola and mozzarella. And let’s face it – those three really DO deserve to be universal.