Asiago Contains Multitudes

This cheese is a story of generations of tradition, expertise and innovation.

I was on a trip to the Jura Mountains learning about Comté when a cheesemaker took me aside. “There’s no such thing as Comté,” he says. “It’s Comtés. Every single wheel is unique.”

The same thing can be said for Asiago.

Asiago is an Italian cow’s milk cheese, traditionally made in the Veneto and Trentino regions in Italy. It has D.O.P. status, meaning that authentic Asiago DOP can only be produced in specific regions of Northern Italy, according to strict, traditional rules.

American versions of this crowd-pleasing cheese include one from Sartori, a fourth-generation family-owned and operated company in Wisconsin. Its Asiago is a perfect munching cheese, especially with salami, good bread, and an amber ale. This cheese has a delicately sweet flavor and buttery aroma.

BelGioioso also makes a delicious Asiago. “It has a sweet, nutty flavor with a hint of sharpness that satisfies, but never overpowers,” says Sofia Auricchio Krans, fifth-generation cheesemaker and project manager at BelGioioso Cheese.

The BelGioioso story began over a century ago when Krans’s great-grandfather, Errico Auricchio, founded a cheese company based on a philosophy of excellence. In 1979, Errico moved his family from Italy to America with the goal of continuing his great-grandfather’s legacy. He wanted to craft the best Italian cheeses in the United States.

It was in Wisconsin, known as America’s Dairyland, where he found the dedicated farmers and abundant green pastures and corn fields that produce high-quality milk. Today, BelGioioso makes fine cheese crafted with Italian recipes in the heart of Wisconsin.

“BelGioioso Asiago is made with the freshest, quality local milk and is crafted and aged over five months to create a semi-firm body and distinct aroma,” explains Krans. “Our traditional brining methods and unique starter cultures create a distinct and consistent texture and flavor. We don’t cut corners when crafting our cheeses.”

Distinct Ages and Flavors

What most of us picture when we think of Asiago is aged Asiago PDO, also known as Asiago d’Allevo or Asiago Stagionato. This is the traditional hard, savory Asiago, made from partially skimmed cow’s milk. Only about 20% of the production of Asiago cheese is this aged variety, and much of it is slated for export.

Asiago Mezzano, matured for four to six months, is a semi-firm cheese. Its curd is compact, its color a pale yellow. As Asiago ages, its texture becomes harder and its flavor becomes more intense, complex and expressive. Asiago Mezzano is redolent of toasted hazelnuts and yeasty dough, with a sweet, caramelized finish.

As the cheese matures — Vecchio is aged for at least 10 months and Stravecchio for 15 months or more — hints of nutmeg, black pepper and salted caramel emerge. About 10,000 wheels of Stravecchio are crafted each year.

Fresh Asiago, PDO, also known as Asiago Fresco or Asiago Pressato, is delicate, with a pliable, almost squeaky texture and a milky flavor. Lovely notes of tangy yogurt and rich cream come through in this cheese — sweet, with balanced acidity. The fresh version is made with sweet whole milk, placed into molds, pressed under pressure (hence the term pressato), and kept that way to accelerate its brief aging process — two months at the most.

The pressed curd “results in the proliferation of small apertures — not really ‘holes,’” says Steven Jenkins, author of the The Cheese Primer (Workman). Still, the curds pull apart easily, giving the pale, straw-colored cheese a holey, knobby appearance. While it is beloved in Italy, it is only now making its way to the U.S.

BelGioioso also produces an Asiago Fresco. It has a milder flavor and softer texture, aged a minimum of 60 days. “As the cheese ages, the body breaks down and the flavor develops further to include sharper notes,” says Krans. “Our Asiago is aged a minimum of five months and our extra aged, a minimum of 12 months.”

A Storied History

A thousand years ago, the isolated Asiago Plateau, which lies between the Po River and the Southern mountains of the Valsugana Valley, was quiet. The bordering Astico and the Brenta mountain ranges shield the plateau against harsh winds and keep the air clear and clean.

Now in Northern Italy, it was a part of the defunct Republic of Venice’s outskirts, remote and sparsely populated. Shepherds tended flocks of sheep and turned to cheese, a method of preserving their cattle’s milk, to provide them with quality protein and fat year-round. The proto Asiago was sustenance during long, harsh winters.

During the 1500s, the Renaissance flourished, and the population boomed. Cows replaced sheep as the predominant grazing animal in the region’s mountain valleys. Cows produce more milk, and in turn, more cheese. Beginning in the early 1600s and over the ensuing centuries, cheesemakers of the plateau perfected the recipe for aged Asiago.

These wheels are much the same as they are today. They are relatively small in size, weighing in at 17.5 to 26.5 pounds, crafted with partially skimmed milk from cows freely grazing on the lush grasses and wildflowers of the valley. The cheese is traditionally aged to three different maturities — Asiago Mezzano (4-6 months), Asiago Vecchio (over 10 months) and Asiago Stravecchio (over 15 months).

At the foot of the Dolomite Mountains, people have been making cheese for a millennium —maybe more — and passing their deep knowledge and passion down to sons and daughters, and in turn, their sons and daughters. The delicious tradition continues today.

On May 15, 1916, 2,000 Austrian artillery guns opened fire against the Italian lines near Asiago, which sat on the Italian side of the border between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Battle of Asiago (Battaglia degli Altipiani in Italian) was the start of a grueling three-year defense of Italy’s borders, which ravaged the Asiago Plateau. The region’s gorgeous, mountainous countryside turned out to be a boon — the rough terrain helped diminish the Austrian enemy’s supply lines, protecting Italy from its invaders.

Suddenly, the sleepy countryside was flooded with upward of 400,000 Italian troops, fighting to secure their country from the Austro-Hungarian forces.

How to feed everyone? Asiago cheesemakers rose to the occasion. They could produce large quantities of Asiago, but the traditional cheese took too long to age. They needed a lot more cheese in much less time.

So instead of making aged Asiago with part skim milk that matured for months, they created a fresh Asiago.

Their new cheese was made with whole milk and pressed, aged and ready for consumption in about a month. Asiago is the story of terroir — environmental factors and character. And Asiago is the story of generations of tradition, expertise and innovation.

Delicious Versatility

Asiago’s culinary possibilities are nearly endless. “You can shred or grate it to top soups or to create fondues and sauces with a little extra heavy cream for pasta and grilled meats,” suggests Krans. Asiago pasta is comfort food at its finest.

Krans finds it “delicious cubed into pasta salads or our deli slices into a sandwich. We also love snacking on the Asiago Fresco, so we added this cheese to our Snacking line.”

On a cheeseboard, grapes, apricots, cashews, and olives make wonderful companions to Asiago. Pair with a refreshing lager or an off-dry Riesling.

Or grab a juicy bottle of red wine like Shiraz or Zinfandel to sip while you sip this soul-satisfying Asiago Potato Soup (see recipe). 

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Serves 6
Recipe by BelGioioso

Cheese Connoisseur

6 strips thick cut bacon, diced
2 Tbs unsalted butter
2 yellow onions, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 large carrots, diced
4 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
Pinch red pepper flakes
1 cup Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio wine
2 – 3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
2 cups BelGioioso Asiago cheese, shredded
Salt and pepper
Fresh chives
½ cup roasted red bell peppers, diced

In a Dutch oven, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove bacon from the pot with a slotted spoon, leaving the bacon fat behind. Add the butter, onions, celery and carrots and cook until onions are translucent. Add potatoes and red pepper flakes and cook 2 more minutes. Add white wine and scrape the bottom of the pot and cooking until wine is reduced by half. Add 2 cups stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender. Blend in batches in a blender, or with an immersion blender until smooth. Stir in cream and milk and bring to a simmer. Add Asiago and stir until melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into bowls and garnish with bacon, chives, red bell peppers and a few shreds of BelGioioso Asiago cheese.

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