by Gina de Palma
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is the region of Italy that lies between two worlds. It is an unassuming region of thundering importance, offering an abundance of gastronomic treasures and stunning natural beauty, where all that is Italian collides with Central and Eastern Europe. Latin and Roman traditions meet and mingle with Austrian and Slovenian custom and culture, and from this heady mix comes some of Italys finest and most precious products: incredible wines, the sweetest Proscuitto, and the noble, elder statesman of cheeses, Montasio.
The only DOP cheese of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Montasio was born in Carnia, the northern portion of the province of Udine where the Alps tumble onto the shores of the Adriatic Sea. The cheese originated about 300 years ago in and around the Carnian village of Tolmezzo, supposedly the invention of a lonely Alpine monk with a herd of cows to milk and some free time on his hands. Today, the official production zone also extends to portions of the Veneto, but Friulians justly claim Montasio as their own.
Montasio producers will tell you that its unique characteristics are the result of three basic ingredients: the sweet grasses and hay of the land, the crisp air of the mountains, and the milk that results from this happy combination. The consortium that governs the production of Montasio monitors the cheese making process with a watchful eye; only milk from dairy farms within the DOP production area may be used. The cheeses are shaped into large, flat wheels, each bearing the official consortium stamp and numbered to identify the producer and the date of production. Montasio is classified and sold according to its age. At 2 months the interior is ivory-white, soft, dotted with holes and considered fresco, or fresh, with a tangy, grassy flavor. After 5 months, it transitions to mezzano or semi-aged; the color turns slightly golden, the texture becomes firmer, and the flavor begins to deepen. After 10 months or more, Montasio becomes stagionato, or aged, with a deeper, nuttier flavor, straw-like color and firm texture.
Montasio is a wonderful table cheese. It’s perfect for enjoying with one of Friuli-Venezia Giulias excellent white wines, a savorymostarda, or one of the luscious stone fruits that are grown in Friuli, such as peaches, plums, and cherries. Try grating some Montasio over hot pasta or potato gnocchi in a simple butter sauce with a sprinkling of poppy seeds, or melting it over roasted wild mushrooms. Montasio is the also the cheese that is used to make fricco, a beloved dish that is relatively unknown outside of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, but somewhat of an icon of Friulian cuisine. A fricco is basically a thin cake of grated Montasio, cooked in hot pan with a bit of olive oil. An aged Montasio will result in a crispy fricco,while a younger cheese will result in a soft fricco that melts in the center.