The Nasty, Maggot-Ridden History of Gorgonzola
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you never know what you’ll be eating next.
Matilde Gilli was barely 6 years old when she tasted her first creamy slice of homemade Gorgonzola cheese one summer evening at her family’s farm in northern Italy’s Piedmont region. Today, at 85, Gilli still remembers the strong smell and taste, and the disturbing sight.
“There were tiny worm heads sticking out of it, and my grandmother was a great fan of those slimy creatures. She loved to scoop up bits of ‘walking’ Gorgonzola worms that oozed out of the cheese and crawled across the kitchen table, and pop them into her mouth,” Gilli says, wrinkling her nose in disgust. The best way to eat Gorgonzola back then was spread on a loaf of bread or with nuts and pears — the ideal farmers’ breakfast. If the cheese hadn’t yet started to decompose well beyond the mold stage, Gilli’s grandmother would shake her head and say it was not yet ready.
There are no maggots anymore, so if you do happen to see a worm, it means the cheese is either rotten or fake.
Italy’s iconic blue cheese was born in A.D. 879 in the picturesque town of Gorgonzola, near Milan. Its birth, as with most sublime culinary treats, was a mistake. Legend says a distracted dairy worker who had just been dumped by his girlfriend left the cheese pot out one night. The next morning, instead of throwing away the almost rotten curd, he added a fresh layer of cheese. In between the two — surprise, surprise — parsley-green veins of mold formed. The dairy worker and his boss tasted it and found it delicious, perfect for their rough palates and those of their townsfolk. The mistake was then replicated several times until Gorgonzola became a specific cheese variant. It was also used as a medicine, given to kids to cure stomachaches and to adults to ease indigestion.
For centuries, peasants ate the stinky and unattractive cheese, either buying it at local markets or making it at home with cows’ milk. The nastier the smell, the tastier the Gorgonzola, but it was no food for posh aristocrats or middle-class families. “The rise of Gorgonzola started during the Renaissance, when the cheese was transported by canal across Lombardy and into nearby Piedmont,” says Stefano Fontana, director of Italy’s Gorgonzola consortium, founded in 1970 to safeguard the cheese at the European level. Then, at the end of the 1800s, the industrial revolution boosted cheese production and seasoning technology in dairy farms, helping spread Gorgonzola’s fame.
The real turning point? The epic moment, circa 1935, when Gorgonzola was “imported” into the kitchens of bourgeois consumers. Two World War I Alpine veterans, and gourmands, traveling across Italy hailed the digestive and nutritional properties of Gorgonzola, which they called “stracchino” (cheese made from “tired” cows that had wandered across valleys). They published an illustrated best-seller titled The Wandering Glutton, and thus was Gorgonzola transformed from a frog into a prince of foods.
Its newly discovered “deliciousness” gained international renown. According to the consortium, by World War II, Winston Churchill — a great fan of Gorgonzola — marked the town on a map with a red “off-limits” circle to prevent the Allies from bombing it. In the 1940s, Italian newspapers reported that Gorgonzola was the most consumed cheese at the House of Commons’ restaurant.
Today, the real Gorgonzola — sold in blue-and-white wrapping with a big “G” on it — is still made largely by hand and exclusively in 3,000 farms scattered across a fertile stretch of land between Piedmont and Lombardy. If made outside of that territory — much like bubbly made outside Champagne, France, is merely sparkling wine — the cheese is no longer Gorgonzola. There are just a few must-have ingredients: pasteurized cow’s milk, lactic ferment, rennet and penicillium.
Techniques have evolved to repeat the dairy worker’s original lucky mistake: The blue-veined mold is formed by piercing the cheese with big metal needles, letting in air that reacts to the penicillium. There are no maggots anymore, so if you do happen to see a worm, it means the cheese is either rotten or fake.
Gorgonzola is one of Italy’s king cheeses, together with Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano, with an annual turnover of 550 million euros and 34 percent of its production exported. It has evolved from peasant food to a Michelin-starred delicacy, used for everything from topping risotto or gnocchi to spicing up sausages. The classy blue cheese even boasts an ambassador: Chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo, who serves extravagant Gorgonzola dishes at Villa Crespi’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Novara.
Every year a Gorgonzola festival takes place in the namesake town’s central piazza, luring addicts from around the globe. Huge pots of steaming Gorgonzola mixed with red beets and blue Curaçao feed greedy visitors. Odors fill the air, but the cheese’s smell is no longer considered a stench — rather it’s a divine scent of which Italians are proud.