America’s Long-Time Ambassador Of All Things Italian
Margaret Cicogna is one of the United States’ leading authorities on Italian cheese. “People call me the Cheese Lady,” she told Cheese Connoisseur over coffee in New York City. “But I do a lot more than cheese. I went to school. I have a family.” Still, Cicogna’s deep knowledge and passion for cheese, and close relationships with the producers she’s worked with over many decades, have more than earned her the title.
She has held influential leadership positions at Consorzio Gorgonzola, BelGioioso Cheese, and Atalanta Corp., and now is an independent consultant working on what she does best: educating, celebrating and promoting high-quality cheese from Italy to lucky American retailers and consumers. She acts as a liaison between farmers, producers and the wholesale retail market, and is a volunteer with the Italian Trade Commission. It was a pleasure to chat with Cicogna, who exudes true joy when discussing cheese.
CC: How did you become the Cheese Lady?
MC: I certainly didn’t set out to become the Cheese Lady. I grew up in New York, lived in Connecticut, and now I live in Rye, NY, in Westchester County. I went to the Sacred Heart School, with the nuns — I loved it! — then to a college called Manhattanville. I left to study in Paris, then came back and worked in New York City in something totally unrelated to food: for Steuben Glass. I got married; my husband was half Italian and half American. He had family in Milan — I’m very close with them today. We lived here for a little bit, and then he was transferred to Switzerland, then Paris, where we lived for 24 years. He died suddenly of cancer in 1980.
One of his Italian cousins was very well known. My family is from Naples, and my husband’s family is from the north of Italy, and so they give me a hard time. Northern and Southern Italians have a famous rivalry. Anyway, this cousin had founded the Gorgonzola Consortium, and also represented rice growers in Piedmont and Lombardy. They produced Carnaroli rice, which is very hard to grow, and very special. It makes the best risotto. He said, “Margret, why don’t you go to America and represent our products there.” And so I did. I came over, and brought his cheeses and rice to America.
CC: That sounds like such a bold move. How did it go?
MC: I used to pick up all this cheese from the airport and put it in the back of my car. I took them around and showed them to people. One or two gave me a hard time, because they thought they owned that business.
These were cheeses from Piedmont and Lombardy, some beautiful cheeses. I arranged to take them to the Fancy Food Show. It went pretty well. This was 40 years ago, and their cheeses just didn’t exist here then. In the early 80s, they had Parmesan and Pecorino, but they didn’t have all those fancy things we have today. People were very nice to me. They loved the cheeses.
So I went back to Italy. And what really got me, what really hooked me, was meeting the producers and seeing their culture. They showed me what the cows were eating; they wanted me to taste the fresh milk. I was moved by their love for what they were doing. And I love Italy. We went back to the Fancy Food Show with Gorgonzola, and it was wonderful. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t know how important the Gorgonzola Consortium would be. But boy did it turn out to be.
CC: But surely there must have been challenges, too.
MC: Oh sure. I stepped on some toes. People could be territorial. Giorgio DeLuca (of Dean & DeLuca) gave me a very hard time.
CC: But weren’t you importing cheese, whereas he was a retailer?
MC: He felt he owned the whole thing, that there wasn’t room for anyone else. But later it all changed. The last time I saw him, I gave him a hug. And that was the exception. Mostly, people were wonderful. We did a lot of work with Macy’s. Andy Balducci was great, and Zabar’s was great, too. I worked with Dairyland. They were here first. They had some of their own fine cheeses. They got a little annoyed at first, because it was their world, but there is definitely room for all of us. We worked everything out.
CC: The food world can be such a boy’s club. How did you navigate that?
MC: Everyone talks about that, but I have no complaints. People have always treated me well, with great respect, wherever I went.
CC: That’s incredibly encouraging to hear. Did you have any mentors along the way? Who showed you the ropes?
MC: The person who was so helpful to me was Fred Chesman. Someone had given me his name and told me he could teach me about cheese licenses and such. (I was totally inexperienced at the beginning when it came to importing, FDA, licenses, etc. I needed the help.) He was working with Atalanta Corp. and was kind enough to meet with me. He was incredibly generous and helpful.
He explained everything to me and even gave me my first order. Fred was a very respected, loved and admired person in the food industry. He passed away a couple of months ago. It is a tribute that I mention him to you here — he really helped me, and many others, throughout the years. Everyone was very sorry to see him go. He was an icon in the cheese industry. His father, who founded the firm of Charles Chesman Co., was one of the very first to import cheese from Italy. I was indeed very lucky to have had his advice and help in getting started. Atalanta (where Chesman served as vice president from 1982 through 2014) is a wonderful company for which I have the greatest respsect.
CC: What are you working on now? What are you excited about?
MC: I’ve been working for Grana and Piave for the past three years. After three years, the money stops — the money comes from the European Union. This year, we’re going to be promoting Pecorino Romano, Asiago and speck. Montasio needs to be promoted. It comes from Friuli, which is the most northeast region of Italy and borders Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. It’s a very good cheese, a cow’s milk cheese named after the mountains. They asked me about it, and I said yes. It’s not exciting like a Blue cheese or some of these cheeses from Piedmont, but it deserves to be promoted.
CC: How do you go about promoting a cheese? What does that entail? What did you actually do?
MC: I spent a good many unforgettable years presenting and promoting the cheeses of Agriform, a wonderful cooperative from the Veneto. Their cheeses include Grana Padano, Parmigiano and Piave and other wonderful cheeses produced by Lattebusche; Asiago; and cheeses by Mila, a coop and producer of cheeses in Alto Adige. Being able to work with Agriform has been so special and a real highlight in my career.
I also spent several great years working with BelGioioso Cheese from Denmark, WI. Originally, they were known for the superior Provolone they were producing domestically in Wisconsin, but then began expanding by making Mascarpone, Gorgonzola and a long series of wonderful other cheeses. I consider myself so fortunate to have had this experience to work with this amazing company and the Auricchio family. Their place is gorgeous, and their products are exceptional. Working with a U.S. company also opened the window to learn cheese production in the United States, which is impressive and growing more so all the time. It’s also getting better all the time. It’s a really exciting time for cheese in the States.
I do a lot of trainings for staff in markets. It’s the most important thing that they understand what they’re selling and can talk to their customers. When you go to buy something, you want to know exactly what you’re buying. I want the markets to love the cheese as much as the people who make it.
For me, the best thing is not to just tell people about cheese, but to explain the origin. The origins of Italian cheeses are always very, very interesting. They always have a special story. If you tell people the story, they’ll certainly remember it, maybe even more than the cheese itself.
CC: That’s why I love to write about cheese. Such good stories.
MC: Right. Take Grana. Sometimes when I show the aged Grana, the Stravecchio or Reserva, people are surprised that it’s Grana, not Parmigiano Reggiano. Grana goes back to the year 1000. Cistercian Monks moved from France to Italy, south of Milan — there’s a beautiful castle there. The Cistercians were excellent at agriculture. There were swamplands, which made for rich soil, and the milk and cream were exceptional. They started making cheese, and it became popular. Now it’s one of Italy’s most popular cheeses. The cows go out on pastures. When you’re up in the Dolomites, you see these happy cows. It’s really something.
For everything you export, you pay an export fee. So, if I was going to bring in 10 cheeses, I was going to pay 10 times the fee. But I had a lot to learn; if I did it right, there could be one fee, one invoice, rather than 10. Agriform worked with me on this. They helped me out. In the beginning, I was young. I could take a risk and do these things. I spent a lot of time at the airport. I learned more and more.
CC: Many decades later, so much has changed, some of that thanks to you. The specialty cheese world is growing all the time. How is the cheese landscape different from when you began?
MC: The business has definitely changed. There is so much more beautiful artisanal cheese available in the United States. Just so much cheese. A lot of these gorgeous little cheeses are really expensive. But promoting them still takes hard work. You have to go out and explain, tell their story and really sell them to people. You’ve got to give them the history. Since I love the producers so much and know them well, I love to do it. I love to tell the stories about them.
There are so many products out there, and so much competition. Sometimes it can be ruthless. I don’t want to get into any ruthless fights, that doesn’t make sense. I always tell the truth. It’s easier to be honest.
CC: You worked for a lot of prestigious specialty food companies. How did you get involved with Atalanta and BelGioioso?
MC: It’s a small world, so I got to know people pretty fast, and well. It happened naturally. I connected producers with companies who could champion them. I always wanted to work as a consultant. I have always appreciated the freedom of working for myself.
CC: That’s completely understandable. What is your favorite part of what you do?
MC: I love that I get to see the whole thing through — from the producers, to stores, to customers… and then at the end of that journey, maybe you write about it. It’s satisfying.
I also love bringing people to Italy. Sometimes I put together trips. I’ll take teams from markets and buyers and introduce them to Italian producers. They’re absolutely beautiful trips. It’s quite an experience. I tell the producers, “Show them everything.” And they really do. We see the pastures, the grass and the cheesemaking from start to finish. Last time, when we got to the airport, people were crying. A man said to me, “Margaret, you’ve changed our lives.” They’ve never forgotten. Neither have I.
CC: It sounds magical. When you’re not being the Cheese Lady, what do you do for fun? What is your non-cheese life like?
MC: I have two children. My younger son died four years ago.
CC: I’m so very sorry to hear that.
MC: Thank you. Anyway, I love music. I love spending time with friends. I have a granddaughter, and spending time with her is very important to me. They live in New Jersey, right across the Tappan Zee Bridge. And of course, I travel to Italy quite often.
CC: What’s next for you?
MC: I’m always checking out stores and their cheese departments. Many markets are really improving their selection and quality. And I’m selling my house; I’m downsizing. It’s a new chapter. I’m excited about working with Friuli and Montasio. I’ll be back in Italy soon and have more trips ahead to organize. It’s a great time for cheese.