I’m turning into a cheese geek. There’s no denying it. I was in Stong’s market yesterday, and nearly had a public fit of joy when I realized they carried a whole line of Greek cheeses. Later, I went out to Salt, a charcuterie restaurant in Gastown- and checked out their tasting menu. Imagine how thrilled I was to find Lincolnshire-“please, is the Lincolnshire Poacher?” I inquired, full of hope. I also scoffed at the Mahon on the menu and steered my friends far away like a mother hen with her little cheese chicks. You see, this is what I have become. My life revolves around cheese. It only took 66 days.
Speaking of cheese, isn’t it interesting how you often know the name of a cheese, but actually have no idea of what that cheese is? Take Provolone, for example. Up until just now I couldn’t tell you the first thing about it-but it’s one of those cheeses that has worked its way into our common discourse. Perhaps that is because Provolone is actually the national cheese of Italy.
Have you ever wandered into an Italian deli and noticed the weird looking cheese bound up in twine and hanging from the ceiling like some sort of fromage-based bondage scene? That’s provolone. It’s kind of like a mozzarella, only with taste. Both cheeses come from the Italian “pasta filata” or “spun paste” family-meaning that they are a pulled-curd cheese. The cheese curds are heated and then kneaded and stretched like a salt water taffy. That gives the cheese that chewy texture and allows the shape to become almost anything. After the young provolone is stretched it is then put into any number of bizarre shapes ranging from pear, sausage, or hot air balloon, to the more creative. Some people actually sculpt provolone into animals, figures, or just about anything else. It’s basically cheese silly-putty. A single provolone can weigh anywhere from one to several hundred pounds, so there’s an awful lot of room to free-form with this cheese.
Provolone-which means large Provola (basically meaning small provolone, a cheese tautology) first appeared about 120 years ago in southern Italy. It started as a small cheese, made by individual producers, but then it grew and grew in size and popularity as it spread north. Provolone is now made both industrially and artisinally. Provolone is always made from full-fat cow milk. It is usually pasteurized, but sometimes made from raw milk. There’s a lot of taste difference in the provolone family. My sample, the Piccante (piquant) is aged a minimum 4 months and is well-piquant. Then there is the Dolce-sweet version- which is younger and milder. Two types of provolone, Val Padana and del Monaco have received DOP designation, but not Provolone in general. This explains why you find cheese calling itself provolone just about everywhere.
My little piece of provolone piccante isn’t claiming to be DOP, so it likely isn’t. It has been warming up beside me for some time now, waiting for me-patiently. The longer it waits, the stronger it smells. This is actually quite a stinky little cheese for something that looks so benign. The chunk it was sliced from also looked rather benign, no balloon or animal shape, no tortured string-acrobatics. Sigh. My slice is pale and wan. It looks like mozzarella. It’s firm looking with no eyes, no mold, and no discernible rind whatsoever. Boring.
Mmmmm. Not what I was expecting at all. Yes, piquant is correct! This cheese is extremely um, “intense” in flavour-not in a rotten sort of way, but in a salty, cheesey, bound-up-in-twine and hanging from the ceiling, astringent, zingy, “oh my God what is this,” sort of way. It almost hurts my tongue to eat it- the taste is so loud. Second bite-Holy! It’s so sharp and zesty that my saliva glands have just gone insane-squirting madly. What in the world have they done to this cheese? How do you make milk taste like this? Why did I ever think this was a boring little cheese? Provolone piccante is a sleeper: looks like mozzarella, tastes like pain. But in a good way. You know that line,”hurts so good?” I think they were talking about provolone piccante. Clearly this is not the version found in sleepy little deli counters across the world, I suspect that would be the dolce (sweet) version. That’s for wimps. For those of you who like to eat on the edge, pick up some piccante and thank me later.