Time was – and not so long ago – when our experience of Italian cheeses in this country was confined to malodorous powdered ‘Parmesan’ which came in green tins and hard- enough-to-bounce balls of ‘mozzarella’, tiny heads on fat round bodies with a spectacular absence of flavour. Even about twenty years ago in Sydney when the Italian-run Paesanella Cheese Factory was turning out fresh ricotta cheese to great excitement the actual product was watery, tasteless and distinctly unexciting – and yet it was a step forward.
Many steps later here we are, a group of about twenty adults gathered in a Byron Bay café on a midweek night for an Italian Cheese and Wine Tasting. Wind whips at the plastic shading; we settle at long tables on two different dining levels, and meet our presenters, Cheese Please’s Di Vickery and Peter Panousis from Mezzanine Wines. Our individual menus list six cheeses with accompanying wines and culinary appendages devised by chef/owner Jade, and on the tables are baskets of breads and crackers. Di and Peter alternate between the two levels throughout the evening, discussing each course’s choice and answering questions.
The actual wines are of Italian variety only, as opposed to origin. The Alta Pinot Grigio which kicks off the evening – to go with Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano – is glorious, delicate, and as similar to an Italian Pinot Grigio as I could hope for. It matches both cheeses beautifully, especially the grainy, tangy, crumbly, salty parmesan with its exploding pockets of sweetness – to my mind one of the great Italian table cheeses. Its poorer cousin Grana Padano is bland in comparison – only really good for use in cooking or grating over pasta. Both these cheeses belong to the classification known as Grana – meaning granular – a hard variety of which the other two types are the lesser known Lodigiano and Piacentino (all the names denoting provenance). Next comes a Piave, a rare aged cow’s milk cheese from the Veneto, one with which I am unfamiliar and which is a little like a gruyere, working divinely with the Tar & Rose’s Sangiovese.
Next up, two types of the ewe’s milk cheese known as pecorino, one the classic Romano and the other a fresh Calcagne. The former, one of the oldest cheeses in existence, around in the first century AD, is the best known known: hard and salty, it is best used grated, unlike the latter. Fresh pecorinos are lush cheeses often only 30 days old, sweet and faintly nutty. The Tuscan Regional Institute for Educational Research (IRRE Toscana) suggests that it ‘should be eaten in the same humble manner in which the… peasant combated hunger and fatigue: with bread and pears, with raw bacelli beans in the radiant months of Spring, with polenta and slices of garlic for those who like intense, extraordinary tastes, with brown bread and onions on days spent outdoors.’ With these we drink a big (as they tend to be) Shiraz by Tar & Roses. Tar & Roses also made the fruity, spicy Tempranillo up next to go with the Fontina: a soft wine for a soft cheese. Fontina, Di tells us, is a washed-rind style made in the Aosta Valley in northwest Italy. Funny how convivial the room has suddenly become, questions popping out and opinions exchanged on our cheese and wine flights. Taleggio, another washed-rind, is almost overwhelmed by a Thorne-Clarke Nebbiolo, a big dry wine when something more delicate might have suited. By the time the ‘sweet’ course arrives – gorgonzola with a Rutherglen Tokay and quince paste – I, cheese- lover of all time, am wondering if I will ever eat cheese again. I soldier on magnificently, loving it, although beginning to doubt by this sated stage my powers of discernment. It is a fabulous event notwithstanding!
All the cheeses on the night are available at Blue Olive Deli and Citrus Deli, both in Byron Bay.