The shopping list of the elderly woman ahead of me at the market a few days ago read: 55g of grated pecorino, four slices of mortadella and a spoonful of gorgonzola. As the woman behind the counter pushed the extremely small lump of cheese through the grater, sliced the dusty pink mortadella and scooped from a veined round of gorgonzola, there was chatter – about the uncollected rubbish reeking by the side of the market, a grandchild, but mostly about the gorgonzola itself, and how much the woman’s husband hated it as much as she adored it. We were four in line, one woman twitching with impatience, but that didn’t matter – there was a tub containing about 600g of gorgonzola to be sealed and a story to finish.
There are many stories as to the origins of gorgonzola. Franco Angeli recounts the most likely in his thorough and serious book about Italian cheese, Il Grande Patrimonio. At some point in the sixth century, in a town called gorgonzola, an unnamed Lombardian innkeeper found some forgotten rounds of stracchino – a simple cheese traditionally made from the milk of cows after they return stracce (tired) from the high pastures of Valsassina. Forgotten, the rounds had developed musty coats and thin veins of mould within. The innkeeper declared his discovery delectable, and christened it erborinato, a term which probably comes from Lombardian dialect for parsley, for the green-blue marbling that ran through the newly born cheese.
For quite some time, the discovery was simply called stracchino verde or stracchino di gorgonzola. It was only at the start of the last century that it became gorgonzola, and was granted the cheese equivalent of a knighthood – DOC or protected status – in 1955.
The Milanese food writer Anna Del Conte describes the traditional process well, how gorgonzola is made from both the hot and cold curds of two milkings, how penicillium is added along with the rennet, and the curds pressed into 30cm rounds. Fine needles are then inserted into the rounds, and these holes encourage and help the mould spores to do their thing and grow green-blue-grey veins that marble through the cheese.
Gorgonzola was famously aged in the grotte (caves) of Valsassina and Val Brembana, alpine valleys near Milan. Some small producers and farmers still work in this way, continuing to age gorgonzola in mysterious, dark caves, but mostly these conditions are recreated in factories.
There are two sorts of gorgonzola. Gorgonzola piccante, as the name suggests, is feisty and piquant; the prominent veins in this firmer, at times crumbly, cheese have a musty tang and bite – even a slightly metallic note. Dolce means sweet, and, although it is not actually sweet, gorgonzola dolce is certainly sweeter in nature, the veins lighter both in look and taste, and pleasantly tangy next to the creamy cheese.
Gorgonzola dolce is more common and, because it is softer, sometimes excavated with a spoon, rather than cut. Like the lady at the market, sweet is my preference, which is possibly the cheese equivalent of saying you like Dairy Milk more than a Lindt 70% (I’ll take a square of both, please). Gorgonzola dolce bought by the spoonful is what I like to squash on bread, grout celery like tiles with, and melt into sauce for tubby potato gnocchi or long pasta.
Salty-sweet blue cheese with its pointed tang craves bitter flavours, according to food writer Niki Segnit, author of The Flavour Thesaurus. She is right, which is why sage, with its inherent musty bitterness, works so well here – as do the optional toasted walnuts, milky but with their slight nicotine-like bitterness, also adding a rubble of texture to the rich sauce. This is a luxurious dishy dish, which – if both people in the couple love gorgonzola as much as they love each other – could be just the thing for February 14th (just don’t choke on a walnut).
Tagliatelle with gorgonzola
Prep 5 min
Cook 20 min
500g fresh or dried egg tagliatelle
1 garlic clove, peeled and thinly sliced
6-8 sage leaves
75g gorgonzola, cubed
100ml double cream
Salt and black pepper
1 handful shelled walnuts, roughly chopped
Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil, add the pasta and cook as per packet instructions. Have all the ingredients for the sauce ready to go.
While the pasta cooks, take a small pan and, over a medium-low flame, melt the butter, and add the sliced garlic and sage leaves, leaving it all to bubble for a minute.
Add the cubed gorgonzola, cream and a few grinds of black pepper, then stir until the cheese has melted. Continue cooking for another minute.
When ready – tender but with a slight bite – drain the pasta (saving a little of its cooking water) and tip it into a warm bowl. Pour over the cheese sauce, add half the walnuts and toss quickly, adding a little pasta cooking water if it seems at all stiff. Divide between bowls, sprinkle over the remaining walnuts, and serve.