Posted by: acooksca | 04/02/2009

A Great Grocery, and a Great Aged Cheese

bitto-2bSince 1843, a general grocery in Morbegno has sat above 3 levels of ageing cellars made of stone. For centuries, the cheeses of Valtellina, Italy and thousands of wines from over Europe have aged gracefully in this subterranean environment. As you descend stone staircases to ever danker cellars, the wines are older and the cheeses more aged.

This is a corner grocery, Alimentari F.lli Ciapponi, is of monumental interest to wine and food lovers. We tried to see it on a Sunday (closed). Doubling back the next Tuesday within their opening hours (9-12:30 and 3:30-6:30) we discovered that this magical place was well worth the effort.

Just inside the door, it looked small and cramped by cases of cured meats and dry goods. Telescoping backward, however, multiple small rooms revealed treasures they called “tipici prodotti Valtellinesi”. Hundreds of honeys, flavored grappas, and bundles of dried flowers and herbs crowded separate rooms. We had yet to find cheeses when a young man appeared to guide us.

 F. lli Ciapponi has the top ageing cellars for an elusive Valtellina cheese called Bitto (unavailable ouside this valley). In a separate room on a time worn table, sat five rounds of Bitto. Bitto is cellared to be sold after 1 year, 2-3 years, 5, 7 and a remarkable 10 years of ageing.

Our new friend encouraged us to wander the ageing cellars, so we did. In the lowest, 3 floors down, moist walls glistened under a bare bulb, smells of ammonia and wet stone knocked you over, and racks of Bitto were stamped 1996.

All Bitto is made Alpeggi, the artisan manner by folks who live year round in the high reaches of the Valtellina. This is a blended milk cheese, approximately 90% cow’s milk and 10% goat’s milk. 

Alpage cheeses are truly artisanal products. Celebrated in high pastures of the Alps, Alpage is the making of cheese bitto-1bon the spot. The remoteness of high pastures makes daily transportation of milk to dairies impossible. Shepherds set up cheese-making facilities in pastures, storing cheeses in chalets and collecting them on their way back down the mountain.

Our generous sample of one year old Bitto was ivory colored, semi-hard, tasting of fresh milk, grasses, and flowers. It reflected the wonderful nuances of remote mountain pastures.  Tasting 2-3 year old Bitto, the fresh milk taste was gone.  In its place was the taste of over ripe apples, roasted nuts and a hint of well aged goat’s milk.  This one was our favorite Bitto for its full unique flavor as a table cheese.

As the Bittos aged longer, they firmed into grating and cooking cheeses with meat and forest-floor flavors.  At ten years, the deep amber colored wheel was cracked with fissures of dark mold.  Its texture was a rough, crystalline crumble.  The very intense flavor shouted dried salted meats and old mushrooms.  I could imagine shaving this cheese to melt over soft polenta as a staple of Valtellina tables.

Alimentari F.lli Ciapponi – Piazza 3 Novenber (centro storico) Morbegno, Sondrio      Tel; 0342/610223

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.

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