It’s hard to imagine, but a one hour’s drive northwards will take you out of the Milanese traffic to a landscape of pastures and mountains. Such is the incredibly varied landscape of Lombardy. We are now up in the Valtelline valley, home to some fine dairy products whose fame has spread worldwide, and one of these is Bitto cheese.
What is bitto cheese?
Traditional bitto, as the Slow Food association has defined it to set it apart from industrial products, is a craft cheese. It is produced in the summer months in no more than 12 mountain grazing pastures authorized by the presidium. The livestock, Alpine brown milking cows and goats of the Orobic species are led to the pastures in June and remain there, weather permitting, until September.
The Consortium for safeguarding traditional bitto sells the cheese at its own premises in Gerola Alta, where it is stored for ageing purposes: the cheese is sold at various stages of maturity starting from 70 days. According to the norms regulating its production, the milking cows and goats may only feed off fresh pastures, while the rules for the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) variety also allow for the use of fodder and do not consider goat’s milk as being mandatory.
The origins of bitto cheese
One thousand years of history lie behind bitto cheese: the first written evidence dates back to the XVI century when it was praised as a sublime dairy product. It was first made in the Orobic Valleys and on the mountain pastures, fruit of a favourable combination of humidity, temperature and craftsmanship.
The area of production of bitto DOP comprises the Sondrio province and the municipal districts of the upper Val Brembana. That of traditional Bitto is a delimited area of the Orobic foothills, comprising the provinces of Sondrio, Bergamo and Lecco. The main valleys involved in its production are those of Gerola and Albaredo, the so-called bitto valleys.
As well as regaling a rich flavour of grassy fragrances and aromas, bitto improves with age. It also owes its success down through the centuries to the fact that it ages well, enabling it to withstand long journeys on the back of a mule or on carriages and boats. A bitto wheel can be stored for over 10 years. It is worth remembering that, up until the late 1800s, mature cheese was a luxury item.
How bitto is made
Everything depends on how the animals are fed. Grass and flowers are fundamental in achieving the end result, both in terms of taste and milk quality. They make it rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega 3, both of which are good for us. Each wheel of cheese requires two milking sessions: one in the morning and another around 4 pm. The milk has to be processed on the alpine pastures in order to prevent bacterial contamination and alterations deriving from its transportation.
The milk then goes into the “culdera”, a local dialectal term indicating a large, very heavy copper cauldron (weighing up to 50 kg), shaped like an upturned bell. The huge pan contains freshly milked cow’s milk, still warm, and a 10-20% of goat’s milk. The milk is then heated to a temperature of 35-37°C on a wood fire, before adding the rennet; finally the curds are broken up with a special pallet into small pieces the size of rice grains. At this point, the cauldron is put back on the fire and its contents are gently heated to a temperature of 50°. Then the curd mass is gathered up in a linen cloth and pressed into circular bands measuring 50 cm in diameter.
The utensils and equipment used in the making of this cheese are of wood and producers claim that the typical characteristics of each pasture also derive from the “taste” of the utensils, which are handed down from one generation to the next. Wood retains the typical characteristics of the micro flora, which creates a barrier against the bacteria presenting the natural fermentation process. The salting phase may be “dry” or “wet”, that is to say, by immersing the cheese in brine: as well as making the cheese tasty, it enables the creation of a rind which ensures external insulation. The ageing process starts here and is completed in the storehouse of Gerola Alta. A wheel may not be considered mature until it is at least seventy days old.
How to serve bitto cheese
Bitto cheese expresses its full potential at room temperature. Before tasting, remove it from the refrigerator or any other cold storage environment for half a day. Purists throw up their hands in horror at the mere idea of using it in cooking; they prefer to enjoy it just as it is, slowly, to retain the fragrance of August flowers and grass on the palate. In the mouth, its dissolves immediately leaving hints of dried fruit, butter, hay and dried flowers.
The perfect pairing
Bitto is a “meditation” cheese and therefore pairs perfectly with a Valtelline meditation wine such as "Sfursat", a dry red wine produced from Nebbiolo grapes.