In which we conclude our whistle-stop tour and you’re set free, armed with useful knowledge and skills. More or less.
Composing a well-formed cheese plate
In the world of cheese plates, there are typically five main categories of cheese: Fresh, bloomy and soft, cooked and pressed, washed rind, and blue.
Or these categories: sharp, creamy, funky, nutty, and fresh.
Or these: creamy, soft, semi-hard, goat, and blue.
It really doesn’t make that much difference — when you’re putting a well-balanced cheese plate together you really just want a wide enough selection to provide a variety of tastes and textures, and to keep things interesting. You’ll also want to mix up cow, sheep, and goat cheese, both for the sake of it, but also in case some of your friends have issues specific to a type.
Here’s the previous list of cheeses ordered by category, according to the first version I list above. The point isn’t necessarily to be proscriptive about it – it’s important to eat cheese that you like – but for this to be a place to begin. There are what seems to be an infinite number of cheeses available in Italy, these days, but all the ones listed here can be dated to the 16th century or earlier.
Italian Cheese Plates: a primer
I absolutely endorse your digging in to some of the less common varieties, but here I’ll take you through what I believe to be the easiest representative cheeses to find in modern shops – I think you’ll be surprised and delighted to discover how easy it will be to compose your own Perfectly Period Party Platter™.
Appropriate fresh cheeses are easy to find - ricotta or caprino (a fresh goat milk cheese, called chèvre in French) are readily available. For ricotta, try to find a higher-end type with internal draining and a light texture. For caprino, look for something without a rind. These often come in flavoured varieties, like added herbs or garlic (or both!).
Bloomy and soft
Arguably, bloomy means a bit of a suede-like rind, which you can find with a taleggio or fontina, but honestly, an Italian cheese plate would be naked without a nice, soft buffalo mozzarella. Italians had been making cheese from local water buffalo for centuries, so try to find proper Mozzarella di Bufala, if you can. Scappi mentions it and its smoked counterpart, provatura, so you have some options. Sadly, burrata is a 20th century creation. It is to weep.
Cooked and pressed
Parmesan is the king of cheeses with some truly deep history and lore. It’s actually been used as currency, and cheesemakers keep their product under lock and key. It’s gloriously salty. If you’re looking for an alternative, pecorino is its sheep milk cousin and no less glorious. Fontina, Italy’s popular entry into the Alpine style cheeses also falls into this category - smoother, a bit less salty, but so, so good.
I’m not gonna lie – taleggio has stolen a bit of my heart. It’s gooey and smooshy and a bit stinky – very Brie-like in its presentation, but very much its own thing. I can find it at the grocery store, here in Thamesreach, but you might need to chase up specialty cheese shops elsewhere to find it, which will absolutely be worth your time. Same goes for Castelmagno - gloriously squishy, a bit funky, and so delicious.
Hands down, the most famous Italian blue is gorgonzola. It comes in two types, based on its age: dolce, which is younger and milder, and Piccante, which is older and sharper. It doesn’t have the face-slapping funk of, say, a Stilton, but it’s still really interesting and complex and delicious.
There’s more to a good cheese plate than just cheese - fresh and dried fruit, nuts, charcuterie and crackers are all mentioned by Scappi in his shopping list of snacks, and all add texture and interest to your cheese plate landscape. You could probably also include preserved or pickled vegetables and mushrooms, as these were definitely found in a well-appointed 16th century larder. Broadly speaking, though, keeping it seasonal is a good bet and an appropriate choice.
As is right and proper, the list of books I referenced for this bit of research.
- Bartolomeo Scappi and Scully, T. (2011). The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) l’arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco. Toronto, Ont. University Of Toronto Press.
- Giagnacovo, M. (2007). Formaggi in tavola: commercio e consumo del formaggio nel basso Medioevo : un contributo dell’Archivio Datini di Prato. Roma: Aracne.
- Gobbetti, M., Neviani, E., Fox, P.F. and Gian Maria Varanini (2018). The cheeses of Italy: science and technology. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
- Keyser, B. and Friend, L. (2016). Composing the cheese plate: recipes, pairings & platings for the inventive cheese course. Philadelphia, Pa: Running Press.
- Kindstedt, P. (2012). Cheese and culture: a history of cheese and its place in western civilization. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Pub.
- Mciver, K.A. (2017). Kitchens, cooking, and eating in medieval Italy. Lanham; New York; London: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Palmer, N. (2020). Cheesemonger’s History of The British Isles. S.L.: Profile Books Ltd.
- Pantaleone Da Confienza, Naso, I., Siegfried Kratzsch, Riedel, C.-L. and Hansen, D. (2002). Summa lacticiniorum. Krefeld: Mlua.
If you’re interested in cheese history of other areas in Europe during the Middle Ages and renaissance, I highly recommend Cheese and Culture by Paul Kindstedt - he’s seriously done his homework, and it’s an incredibly good read.
Arguably, Ned Palmer’s Cheesemonger’s History if the British Isles is what really got me to think about all of this in the first place - it’s another well-written history, written by someone who truly loves the product and the process, so a good one for your library.
About the author
Signora Marcella di Cavallino is a 16th century noblewoman who, after leaving her post in a Concerti delle Donne of the Medici, inherited a villa near Florence. When not engaged in household management and entertaining guests, she finds time to pursue calligraphy and illumination in the old styles, knitting, and to visit her extended family in various cities and towns of Northern Italy, mostly to partake of their cheeses.
You can read more about her interests and adventures at An Everyday Italian https://freewaydiva.blogspot.com