Puglian cheese

A Cheesemonger’s guide to the heel of the boot.


Puglia was historically a dry and scrubby region, at least until the mass irrigation projects of the 1960s. That sort of land tends to favour goats rather than cows, who generally like a nice lush field of grass. However, Puglia is home to a unique breed of cattle called Podolico— hardy, omnivorous creatures who are happy on short rations, eating undergrowth and scrub in the Autumn and Winter months, and heading up to the high pastures in the Spring time where they thrive on a diet of blueberries, rose hips, hawthorn, cornelian cherries, juniper, and wild strawberries, which aside from being absurdly luxurious, gives rich aromatic milk. 

Caciocavallo is a traditional cows milk cheese of southern Italy, and Puglia has its own unique version, Caciocavallo Podolico, made from the milk of this indigenous breed. The cheese comes in pairs of shaped balls which have been tied together and slung over a pole to mature. This formation gives them their name ‘horse cheese’ possibly because this was how the cheeses came down off the mountain pasture— tied together and slung over the back of a horse. Caciocavallo is a pasta fillata or stretched curd cheese, where the curd is heated to a very high temperature, about 90 degrees Celsius, and stretched like noodle dough over and over. Usually this results in a soft elastic texture, like Mozzarella, but Caciocavallo is matured in caves for up to a year or even five for larger cheeses, and after all this time develops a texture more like Parmesan. Podolico milk is high in the amino acid methionine which adds a sulphuric ‘cheddary’ note to the typical flavour profile of a Caciocavallo, which might include herbal and grassy flavours, and a hint of the barnyard balanced with sweetness and finished with a tingling sharpness.

A cheese with that kind of complexity and authority needs a characterful wine to stand up to it, and I would have a go with the muscular Primitivo, one of Puglia’s more well-known indigenous grapes. A robust dark red – its local dialect name is mirr test or ‘hard wine,’ – the tannins are nevertheless well integrated and will sit well with the mouthfeel of the cheese.

Puglia’s other big hitter is Negroamaro, a slightly more restrained red with softer tannins, and juicy dark fruits. While this one might work with a younger Caciocavallo, you could try it with Puglia’s answer to Pecorino, a sweet fruity sheep’s cheese called Canestrato. These come in pretty tan coloured cylinders covered in a pleasing criss-cross pattern from their woven reed moulds. 

Though it may not feel like it, Summer is coming, and in the warmer months it’s nice to have some lighter cheeses. Puglia has what we need. The region is home to a cow’s milk Mozzarella with its own PDO – Mozzarella di Gioia del Colle. The milk must be soured with a whey rather than commercial freeze-dried starter culture, and this adds a refreshing acidity to the creamy flavour.

A lesser known but no less excellent cheese for your Summer picnic is Fallone di Gravina, a mixed sheep and goat’s milk cheese with a meltingly soft texture and simple delicate flavour, much like the Spanish queso fresco, though with a little more spice and complexity from the addition of the goat’s milk. This cheese is really supposed to be eaten at one day old when it is at peak freshness, so I’m afraid you’re going to have to head out there to try it. 

For your picnic in the height of the hot Puglian Summer, Puglian rosé, with more of the red fruit than the citrus and an intriguing salinity, will be just the thing to refresh you and replace those lost salts, and will be a perfect complement to the milky delicacy of the Mozzarella di Gioia and the Fallone.

To finish on a more bonkers note I want to introduce you to Ricotta Forte, or strong ricotta. For this cheese the Puglian cheesemonger would take any Ricotta that was more than a couple of days old and add it to an earthenware pot, giving it a stir now and again. Over time – perhaps a few weeks, this once delicate sweet creamy cheese will referment into a whiffy, mouth-stinging, peppery cheese to be spread on bread by the bold at heart. I would have this with as rustic a Primitivo as I could find. Or you could have it with a generous slug of Grappa, followed by an early night.

Big thanks to my favourite Italian cheese expert Fausto Caserio of Italian Food Hunters, and freelance wine merchant Sam Bisson.

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