The unmistakable creaminess, the melting elasticity, the aroma of grass and a bitter aftertaste are the strengths of one of the most beloved and copied Italian cheeses: Fontina Valdostana DOP. The Wall Street Journal included it in the prestigious ranking of the 26 best dairy products in the world.
Fontina Valdostana is presented in large cylindrical shapes approximately 40 cm in diameter and 8-10 kg in weight. The crust is thin and hazelnut in colour, the dough is elastic and soft with a colour that varies between ivory and straw yellow, with scarce and rare holes. This is one of the secrets to recognizing the authentic cheese, in addition to the PDO label (Protected Designation of Origin status - DOP in Italian, standing for Denominazione di Origine Protetta) that is circular, blue/green, in the centre of its form. The most prized is that of mountain pasture (approximately 200 types), produced between May and September in the alpine pastures above 2000 meters in height, with their extraordinary variety of flowers essences.
Where is Fontina Produced?
We are in the Aosta Valley, where Italy and France meet, in the heart of the Alpine mountain chain. The climate here is continental, hot in summer with wide ranges in temperature. Approximately one-third of the total area is occupied by permanent meadows and mountain pastures, which span up to 3000 metres. Hundreds of species of plants including oats, violet and white clover and alfalfa live in the meadows of Aosta Valley. But above all are the white flowers of wild chervil, the daisy, dandelion flowers and the yellow of the buttercups that lend their taste and golden colour to the cheese. This is the scenery that can be imagined every time a piece of Fontina is tasted; it is here where the cows of Aosta Valley are fed.
How is Fontina Made?
The milk used to produce Fontina must strictly come from the native breed of cattle - Red, Black and Black-Brown Pezzata - born and raised on farms located in the Aosta Valley. The regulation states that they can eat only hay, feed and natural herbs. Each cheese form requires approximately 100 litres of milk. Its colour is a pale straw in the forms produced in winter, when cows are fed with hay, and tends towards a more intense yellow in the summer production because it contains carotene.
Compared to other similar types of cheese, it is made from fresh milk obtained from a single milking, rather than from two successive. Veal rennet and lactic ferments are added to the fresh milk. The curd is broken and wrapped in cotton fabric, then placed in the appropriate moulds that show a sort of stamp on the inside, on which the progressive number of the product is indicated.
After salting in brine, the form is left to mature for at least 3 months. Human intervention takes place daily: constant care is required. The forms are turned over every day, alternating from one day of salting to one of brushing. Rubbing is used to remove the mould layer from the crust that results from natural fermentation and serves to make the crust moist. For the following 3 months, the forms are cured inside humid caves dug into the rock, which in most cases are former WWII bunkers. Only if it is perfect is it labelled DOP, a certification obtained in 1995.
In the kitchen
Fontina is perfect to be enjoyed alone at room temperature and in cooking. It is especially loved for its ability to melt very well from 60°. In its younger forms, it is buttery, with plant and floral notes, while with the time it acquires intensity in taste, with fruity tones and nuances of walnuts.
Fontina is used to create a really special recipe that is appreciated all over the world: fondue. In addition to Fontina, it includes milk, egg yolks, butter and pepper, which are blended to create a velvety cream.
It is excellent for seasoning gnocchi, pasta and risotto, and it loves polenta. It also goes well with acacia honey and dried fruit, but the most luxurious combination is Fontina with white truffle.