Cheese!Of!The!Day!: Castelmagno

Castelmagno was the first of our referrals from Steven Jenkins, the Official Guest Cheese Commentator of these Games. You'll recall his original description:

"The great DOP cow's milk blue (barely); very expensive and rare."

Nothing too noteworthy there, right?

Here's a brief note from egourmetcheese.com:

This cheese is made from partially skimmed cow's milk, with some goat's or sheep's milk added....It is used as after-dinner cheese and also used to make gnocchi.

I bought some Tuesday, and we tasted it Wednesday. I had warned everyone that it came highly, highly recommended. The comments.

Brilliant columnist Sally Jenkins (who says the entire geography of the Upper West Side revolves around Fairway Market, and who is not, as far as I know, related to Steven Jenkins, although, as you'll see, she should be): "Now this is a whole different type of cheese. It's crumbly, granular. It's like eating snow, consistency wise. I'm confused by this cheese, I'm perplexed. It doesn't taste like a good cheese. I feel like this is a mistake cheese. It tastes like a mistake. Either I'm mistaken or its mistaken, I'm not sure which. Maybe I'm a philistine. It could be I'm ruined by the crass American cheese. I don't dislike this cheese, I just wasn't prepared for it. It tastes like powdered sour milk. If powdered milk could go bad, that's what this cheese tastes like."

Figure skating and wine wizard Amy Shipley: "Is this a dry ricotta? It tastes like a dry ricotta. The texture is very odd. It tastes like a combination of dry ricotta and blue cheese. It's very bizarre. It's a very weird flavor."

Loving roommate Les Carpenter: "That isn't cheese, that's the leftover Styrofoam." [Ed. Note: he didn't really taste it.]

Office mother Jill Grisco: "I had this the other night at my cousins'. It was a little more flavorful. This is a little drier. You can get it older, and it can be quite pricey."

Ok, not exactly rave reviews, yes? I was worried I bought the wrong cheese. I e-mailed the Official Guest Cheese Commentator of these Games and said little more than, "Are you sure this was the right cheese?"

His response:

Yeah, the first approach, the first encounter with a Castelmagno is perplexing. Cheese freaks who have been around a bit have heard of Castelmagno in hushed tones; it has a sort of mystical aura about it. And then, when said cheese freak is prostrate before this Dalai Lama of a cheese, and finds the cheese sort of an accidental blue, or no blue at all, plus it's crumbly, sour and dry, it's, well, a puzzlement. But the SECOND time one finds one's self before a portion of Castelmagno . . . preferably a bit peckish, some good bread there, some almonds, nuts of some kind, some olives, mostarda di uva, a bottle of Barbaresco . . . The lights go on like Bowie Live. That dryness was actually a delivery system of a substance that on the palate readily becomes an excruciatingly delicious, thick, magma-like liquor; that tartness immediately translates from citrus-y to a compelling rustic nuttiness, particularly on the exhale through one's nose.

By the way, I did not mention Sally's descriptions at all. She just nailed it, didn't she? Those Jenkins writerly folks think alike, I guess.

If you're curious about mostarda di uva, he writes further:

Hey Dan I guess you're the only Washington Post reporter that hasn't been ordered to drop what he's doing and pile on Dick Cheney. Democrats. What a bunch of nitwits..... As far as serving those three cheeses, just use your common sense. Whatever is on hand will, I am sure, be fine -- olives, crusty bread, culatello . . . There are quite a number of food artisans in the area that make stuff beyond good, past great, and you will find it in the maggazzine (shops) in Torino and elsewhere. First, look for "mostarda di uva", which is a handmade sort-of chutney made from wine grape must, the leavings of the wine press. Mostarda is a sweet/hot and sticky, spoonable, dried fruit specialty of Cremona used as a table condiment for cold meats and leftovers and cooked vegetables and such. Mostarda di uva is ethereal, original, unforgettable, a blessing with the cheeses of the Piedmont (or anywhere else, for that matter). Also look for Grancucina brand "crema di carciofi ed aglio", my beloved artichoke and garlic cream. We spread it on half-inch cuts of baguette as a cocktail appetizer, topped with a roasted Sicilian cherry tomato. And you gotta have Roberto make you a bagna cauda, Piemonte's most famous dish; a bagna cauda is grand to serve with cheeses.

You should remember the paglierina [a previously tasted cheese], unless it was one of the several insipid brands that are widely available. Mass production ersatz paglia cheeses are as forgettable as factory-made Camemberts and Bries, stupid cheese that drives the market and the economy, simply because most people here, there, France, everywhere are dumb but happy, oblivious to the greater joys of serious cheese.

I assured him that our paglierina was not, in fact, insipid, and that Roberto had described the taste of that soft cheese paired with Barolo as "cow's manure, fresh, just dropped." He responded:

And that barnyardy effect of the Barolo Roberto mentioned is just that. It's a clean barnyard. It's an immaculate farm. A perfume not easily understood and harder to articulate, but an undeniable atavisia; it's connected to why dogs like to roll in carrion, not to mention why humans revel in some of the things we do to each other in private.

Yeah, this is an Olympics blog, but I'm sorry, he's just better at writing about this stuff than anyone on the planet, at least anyone I've ever encountered. Seriously, I don't know him and have never corresponded with him before this week, but buy this book. If you're even mildly curious about serious cheese and wish to leave the land of the "dumb but happy," you will love it.

By Dan Steinberg |  February 17, 2006; 1:01 PM ET
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This is just a phenomenal blog...

Posted by: jhorstma | February 17, 2006 01:14 PM

ABOUT CASTELMAGNO
I believe nobody (not even the cheese guru) warned you guys that Castelmagno is NOT supposed to be eaten as the other cheeses. Instead it is meant to be used as the exceptional ingredient of a cheese-sauce that can be put over risotto or agnolotti, or gnocchi (all duly named "al Castelmagno"). This sauce is made by melting Castelmegno in little hot milk (just below the boiling point) and stirring until you get a creamy stuff. FONDUTA, is made with a similar process, but in this case FONTINA or Fontal is used (after pre-soaking small chunks in milk or water) and a egg-yolk needs to be added while stirring gently with a spoon the almost boiling cream. Among the many applications of Fonduta I like to mention pouring it over boiled asparagus spears. Delicious!!!.
If You cannot easily find Fontina You may like to know that - while we were living in the States- we made Fonduta with Monterey cheese. It is almost (!?) like the real thing...
Buon appetito!

Posted by: Ezio | February 18, 2006 04:07 PM

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