In a small area of northern Italy, not far from Milan in the Brescia province, there is a village of 5000 inhabitants called Bagolino: ever since the Renaissance the Caffaro Valley in which it is situated has been known for its cheese making activities, to such an extent that cheese may be traded for other goods and used in the same way as money. Bagòss cheese, produced here in small quantities, is in high demand from Tokyo to New York and often worth its weight in gold: by way of an example, at Harrods in London its selling price is around 50 GBP.
In the same way as a wine owes its quality to the characteristics of the vineyard, a great cheese depends on the pasturelands it comes from. Bagòss owes its incomparable flavour to the luscious, flavour-rich grass of the mountain pastures where the famous Bruna Alpina cows are taken to graze and milked twice a day. Real connoisseurs are even able to distinguish which valley the cheese comes from on the grounds of slight variations in flavour conferred by different species of plants and flowers.
The cheese should always be enjoyed at room temperature in order to fully appreciate the characteristic hints of walnut and chestnut. The best cheese is made from summer milk. Cattle breeding and all phases of production must take place within the municipal boundaries of Bagolino, which comprises the wheels of cheese produced in no more than 28 alpine stations. The first phase is a filtering process which is carried out by passing the milk through a sieve made from conifer twigs and letting it fall into a bucket with holes in the bottom, before going into wooden tubs. The cream that rises to the surface becomes alpine butter. 300 litres of milk are needed to make one wheel of cheese which, once mature, will weigh around 16 kilos. This is why Bagòss is a valuable cheese.
When the milk reaches a temperature of 39 degrees, the cheese-maker adds the rennet and a pinch of saffron powder to confer colour and aroma. In antiquity, this spice used to be imported via Venice and the Doges loved the golden yellow colour of this cheese so much that they ordered it year after year. Once the rennet has been added and the mixture broken up, the cheese goes on cooking and is finally poured into the plastic bands which give the wheel its shape. The gentian flower trademark identifying the alpine hut or individual producer is stamped onto what will become the cheese rind. The subsequent phase consists in a 40-day salting process which is carried out strictly by hand every fortnight. But the care of each individual wheel does not end here: the wheel has to be cleaned, scraped and delicately greased with linseed oil, which gives it the typical ochre yellow colour of Bagòss cheese. Finally the wheels are carried from the cellars of the Alpine hut down to the storage chambers in the valley where they are kept for at least 12 months and even as long as 36 months. A very limited number of wheels are aged up to 48 months.
The flavour of Bagòss cheese will become gradually more intense with ageing. Its colour is pale yellow and slightly golden, with a few small and slight, evenly distributed eyes. The rind is smooth, brown and slightly orangey. It has a pronounced aroma with hints of cut grass associated with its territory; its flavour is slightly spicy, savoury and sometimes piquant.
For many purists, it is a crime to cook a piece of Bagòss aged 24 months, but in traditional dishes, less mature wheels are used as an essential ingredient for filling ravioli, for grating on soups and first courses, for creaming risottos or for grilling. But the best way to enjoy Bagòss is to melt it on top of a slice of boiling hot polenta.