THE CHEESE ROUTE
Formaj: this tasty, simple cows’ milk cheese produced throughout the Belluno area in the same way and yet with characteristics which differ from one zone to another, is almost always unassumingly referred to simply as malga (mountain hut) or latteria (dairy) cheese. Some varieties are low-fat, others semi-fat; some are eaten fresh, others mature or extra-mature, and locally cheese is often sliced with a large knife directly on a cheese board on the dining table, where visitors will be enraptured by the delicious smell and taste of herbs and hay, milk and moss, and the elderly local folk will be transported back to the days when cheese was all they had on the table, together with wine and polenta....... formaj is produced in small, but quality-guaranteed, amounts throughout the Belluno, Feltre, Agordo, Alpago, Cadore and Comelico areas, and visitors can sample the various excellent varieties along the Cheese Route of the Belluno Dolomites, a recently-marked out itinerary along which you can discover a series of authentic, traditional local culinary delights.
In Belluno cheese is traditionally made from milk from carefully-selected cows fed on grass and hay from the fields and mountains in the area. Local cheeses are made in the cooperative dairies and the little latterie turnarie (“rotational dairies” - traditionally the local families took it in turns to make the cheese for the villagers) and can be purchased directly from the dairy or in the local shops; by tradition - or for marketing reasons - each variety is given a name which indicates the type of cheese and/or the area it comes from. So in the north of the Agordino area you can find the characteristic Fodom (from the Ladin name of Livinallongo) and the rare, full-fat, piquant Renaz; in Comelico and in Sappada, the local Latteria cheese; in Alpago, Casalingo di Spert; in the Valbelluna and in the Feltrino area, Nevegal, Zumelle, Cesio, Busche and the sublime Piave Stravecchio, a delicious hard cheese which melts in the mouth like a sweet, undoubtedly one of the most prestigious Italian cheeses to accompany polenta. In the mountain huts on the high-altitude summer pastures on Monte Grappa, in the Feltrino area, the dairy herdsmen still produce ancient cheeses with a dry, intense flavour, such as Morlacco and Bastardo. Another typical variety, exclusive to theprovince of Belluno, is schiz, a cheese produced straight from the curd of the milk, unsalted, white in colour and elastic in consistency, with a lovely, milky flavour. It must be eaten as fresh as possible, sliced and browned in the frying pan with butter and salt until a delicious golden crust forms, indicating that the cheese is ready to be enjoyed served hot with polenta.
Even the humble ricotta, made with the whey of the milk, is today being re-discovered and re-valued. It can be eaten fresh as a light snack or a simple starter, or dried and smoked and then grated over gnocchi and casunziei (a typical local type of filled pasta). In the Cadore and Agordino areas, lasagnetes are traditionally seasoned with melted butter and smoked ricotta, or with spersada (a rare type of soured, fermented ricotta with an extremely strong, intense flavour) or trido (smoked ricotta and mature cheese grated together, mixed with poppy seeds).
In the Comelico area you can still find zigar (not to be confused with the piquant zigher cheese produced in the Livinallongo area), a fresh variety of ricotta mixed with chives and then dried.
For the last few decades in the Cansiglio area in Alpago, high quality cheese has been made using milk from selected breeds of cows. In the 1990s, the dairies in the area began producing prestigious organic cheeses, in addition to the typical local varieties of cheese and ricotta. Highly recommended with polenta and potatoes is Cansiglio stagionato mature cheese or smoked ricotta, grated over a dish of potato or pumpkin gnocchi. The agricultural sector is proving to be effective at protecting and conserving the mountain environment, because it is positive for both nature and the development of the local economy.
for the curious...
Milk and dairy products used to be more widely consumed in the mountain areas (Zoldo, Agordo, Cadore) than in the Valbelluna and the Feltrino, because in the north of the province smallholders used to keep one or two of their own cows, while the sharecropping system was more common in the south, and because there were more cooperative dairies in the mountain areas, which used to collect milk from their members and then give it back to them in the shape of butter, cheese and ricotta. The first dairy cooperative in
Canale d’Agordo. One of the finest dairy products in Belluno was butter: most of the top quality variety, made entirely from the cream of the milk, was sold to local shops.