Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Montasio
Several emails back and forth with the Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Montasio had us scheduled to visit a cheese factory a couple of hours outside of Trieste in Udine.
We arrived in Udine and promptly located our host Isabella in the parking lot and after a few tries at starting the borrowed car, we were on our way. The caseificio is a 20-minute drive from the train station. Once there it immediately became clear that our visit wasn’t quite organized but things came together quickly.
There seemed to be some scrambling to find someone who might help translate if we had issues but eventually he showed up from across the property. Our translator, James is an African National who hailed from Benin and came to Italy on a scholarship. After meeting the love of his life he decided to stay. Since French came easier to him, the tour ended up being trilingual in French, Italian and English or as I like to call it, Fritalish.
This dairy employs 90 people and used to go by the name Latterie Friulane. In addition to Montasio DOP, they produce Cometa, frico, yogourt, milk, cream, fruit juice and ready to use sauces.
Since we were there to learn about the production of Montasio DOP specifically, we headed straight to the production room.
We found the room empty and the large stainless steel equipment quiet. Isabella explained that they produce 900 wheels per day, two days a week. Today was not one of those days but she would talk us through the process and we would have to use our imagination.
Moggio Udinese Abbey
Montasio DOP has come a long way since it was made by monks of Moggio Udinese Abbey during the 13th century. The development of Montasio came from the need to store the precious milk of the region. As the herds grew across the mountain pastures of Friulia cheese making was the only way to preserve the milk in order to get it to the villages in the valley below.
Techniques for making Montasio
Over time the techniques for making Montasio have been refined and perfected. It was a cheese that was very valuable to the region and recognized as of vital importance to the people of the Montasio area for nutrition, taste and a healthy diet and with little equipment, salt, fire, water and air a peasant could afford to make his own.
The milk used now is cow’s milk that comes from the Friuli Giulia and Veneto area, it can also come from Padova and Treviso.
The milk from the night before and the fresh morning milk is first heated enough to be sanitized but not pasteurized.
Years ago, as a kind of insurance policy against inconsistent cheese, the practice of using a “lattoinnesto” or primer was created. The cheese maker selects and sets aside the best of the milk brought into the caseificio from several different farms, milk that could likely guarantee excellent production quality. To stimulate bacteria growth the milk is heated and halted at a specific temperature. The resulting milk is teeming with live bacteria at around 200-300 million per gram. A potent primer that guarantees the stimulation of the important microflora unique to the region and Montasio cheese and ensures the squeezing out of any bad bacteria by its rapid growth.
Cow rennet is then added and the gentle heating and fermentation are carried out in the traditional manner.
When the curd is formed properly it is cut using a special tool called a “lyre” into tiny curd and then continued to be cooked to a temperature of 45C to develop the milk proteins and dry the curd.
Experienced cheese maker
Only the experienced Montasio cheese maker knows the perfect time to pull the curd and put them into moulds to be pressed for 2 hours to extract the whey. The wheels are then removed from the moulds and a plastic ring is added that marks the cheese with its name, factory number and date of production.
The cheese then goes down a conveyor belt and through a detector to make sure no foreign bodies are inside.
At this point, it is ready to spend two days in a salt bath to force out more moisture and add flavour. Finally, the wheels are trimmed of any imperfections and sent to the ageing room. They only have one ageing room here, the superfluous wheels are sent to a facility off-site.
The ageing room
The cows’ health is of utmost importance for the cheese to be able to carry the DOP label. Their diet should not contain any hormones or antibiotics. The milk is held at 6C, should be used within 24 hours and contain 8% milk fat, if it contains too much fat it will produce a cheese that is more piccante.
After our tour we were herded back to the office and into a boardroom where the table was set with big pieces of the differently aged Montasio and some of their other products including frico with boiled potatoes and buffalo mozzarella.
The youngest of the Montasio relies on the still thriving microflora for its subtle flavour. It is wonderful to cook with and makes a wonderful frico di patate. The company prepackages a potato frico that can be nuked and served but making one from scratch is the way to go.
The medium aged Montasio has a more pronounced flavour and makes a fine addition to a cheese plate or served over a salad or pasta. It was the most popular with everyone in the room.
By the time the cheese has aged over 300 days to become stagionato it has developed a deep, slightly pungent taste typical of an excellent cows milk cheese. Served on its own or with aged balsamic or mostarda, Montasio DOP stagionato can stand its ground.
Three stages of Montasio DOP
It was great tasting the three stages of Montasio DOP side by side and by the end, we were stuffed. Our hosts were very gracious and answered all our questions in one of our three languages of communication and we really developed an appreciation for the history and flavour of this time honoured cheese. Montasio is part of daily life to the people of the region and its production and taste a tie to tradition.
Our morning of Montasio was over and we were back in the central piazza of Udine propping ourselves up for the train ride back to Trieste with a quick coffee and poke around town. A brisk walk had us back at the train station just in time and we were on our way back to Trieste. Our day trip had uncovered an unexpected look into an important cheese of the region that was a perfect model of Italian industrialization and has now ingrained itself into local culture. More importantly, we now had a new mission of cooking our own frico di patate with a huge handful of Montasio browned to crispy golden around fried potatoes and onions.
As with the other DOP products we have featured on this website such as Gorgonzola DOP and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP the way to tell them apart from the imposters is the red and yellow Denominazione d’Origine Protetta seal.
Disclosure: We were hosted by the Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Montasio, they organized our visit and helped us get the low down on how this great cheese is produced.