This article featured in Cibus edition of November 2012.
Bizarrely dressed in white polypropylene overalls and sky-blue plastic shoe covers I shuffled behind Giovanni Roncalato, eager to discover the artisan cheese making process at La Casara.
Accompanied by the warm September sun, as it was breaking through the wispy morning clouds, we made our way to La Casara. This family-run cheese making business is situated above the slopes of the Soave vineyards in Ronca, a village in the province of Verona. The drive towards this spot is magnificently accompanied by structured vineyards and olive trees which immediately set you in a rustic ambiance. I felt an air of joyful anticipation in my chest as one of the road signs indicated La Casara. We were approaching the caseficio and it was as if I could already taste the almighty combination of cheese and wine on my palate.
We were greeted by Giovanni Roncalato, whose grandfather, Ermenegildo Roncolato, in the 1920s began to make cheese together with his children Romano and Angelo. At the time they established the Roncalato cheese making factory. Then, in 1964, Romano and his wife took over the management and named the factory La Casara. Today Giovanni, son of Romano, together with his brother Gildo and sister Letizia manage La Casara with the same passion of their ancestors. Despite the changing times, they work hard to retain the traditional methods in cheese making and aim towards producing unique and distinctive tastes in their range of cheese products.
Moving in to the cheese making area of La Casara is a serious matter. We were provided with overalls and plastic shoes for the sake of hygiene and safety. We looked like surgeons ready to access the operating theatre but fortunately we were instead entering the cheese manufacturing section. I could sense a concentrated smell of warm milk, the floor wet and slippery underneath my artificial shoes and the temperature cosy. Giovanni explained that at La Casara, fifteen types of cheese are produced including the historical Monte Veronese DOP – a cheese variety typical of this Italian region which has been awarded the DOP status (Denominazione di Origine Protetta). This status, regulated by the European Union, is an indication of a genuine product which is produced, processed and prepared in a particular geographical zone, mostly in rural and agricultural areas. This cheese is, in fact, made solely from the milk of cows which rear in the hills of Verona known as the Lessini Mountains.
In the room, we met il casaro – the cheese maker – a tanned man with muscled biceps. Il casaro was working through the production of sixteen cheese rounds of Monte Veronese weighing eight to nine kilos each – that actually explains the origin of the biceps. While the toned casaro continued with his job, Giovanni recounted how the untreated milk arrives at the factory and is then poured into the boilers where natural rennet is added to it. The milk starts to coagulate, transforming itself from liquid to solid and the casaro intervenes to manually stir the mixture and break the clumps by a special tool, which looks like the whip accessory of a home mixer but of a gigantic dimension. The curd is cooked at a temperature of 42° Celsius and then cut into irregular rectangular shapes by the casaro using an appropriate wire. The weighty pieces are placed into the round cheese moulds, pressed and left to rest until the whey, which is the word used for the liquid remaining after the milk has been curdled, drains down and the cheese takes the shape of the mould. The salting process takes place either by putting the wheels in brine or air-dried. The cheese is then left to mature between 25 days and 60 days in the appropriate chambers. Time and the perfectly controlled balance between temperature and humidity will mature the cheese to the desired point.
The cheese is ready and the time has come. It was the moment I had been eagerly awaiting since our arrival – the tasting session. And what is a visit to a cheese factory without a concluding tasting arrangement?! We were presented with a selection of four cheeses, cured meats, all produced by La Casara and accompanying wines. Here is what we tasted:
- Monte Veronese DOP latte intero
We witnessed the making of this cheese. As the name suggests, it is made from whole milk and has a whitish soft and elastic texture spotted with small holes. It has the delicate flavour of cream and a sweet milky smell.
- Monte Veronese DOP d’allevo vecchio
This is another Monte Veronese but aged for a minimum of one year therefore its flavour is sharp and its smell recalls hazelnuts and almonds. It was remarkable to learn that the colour of the cheese depends on the season when it is produced and the type of nourishment given to the animals.
- Monte Veronese di malga
A cheese recognized by the Slow Food Presidia in order to preserve its tradition. This is made exclusively with raw milk from cows that have been feeding on the mountainous pastures, known as malga. The cheese with its hard golden texture has an intense and slightly piquant flavour with a alternating fruity aroma.
- Veronese Ubriaco
Yes it is a drunken cheese! Made with cow’s milk this cheese is then soaked in wine and covered with the crushed grape skins for a month. Its maturity age reaches 6/8 months and forms a coloured crust varying from yellow to orange or purple to dark-violet, depending on the grapes used. Its firm but slightly crumbly texture and the light hint of wine makes this cheese my favourite.
The cheese degustation was accompanied by regional wines including a prosecco, a Soave and a Valpolicella and followed by a medley of cured meats prepared from the pigs reared at La Casara. These pigs are fed whey, the residue from the cheese making process, mixed with home-grown cereal crops. The speck, sopressa and coppa are the result of a slow curing process which takes place in cellars and the result is a pleasantly spicy and tender selection of cured meats typical of Verona.
Cheese making at La Casara is an edible craft. The Monte Veronese is still produced by hand retaining the traditional and artisan methods of long ago. And whilst biting into the chunks of Monte Veronese presented to us, I figured out that this cheese represents a particular spot on the Earth, the animal, the grass, the weather, the casaro’s able hands, perception and sensitivity. Cheese captures that moment in time.