“Our Italians” is a series of interviews conducted with local food artisans, experts and producers based in some major Italian cities, but also those who practice their craft in smaller, rural, less visited parts of Italy. These passionate individuals are committed to sharing the best in Italian food, wine and traditional products, through their work, sharing their knowledge at family-owned businesses and small scale enterprises, and we’re here to introduce them to you.
Today we meet Eleonora Baldwin, a hard-core Roman, who has grown up in this eternal city since the age of three. But, at the same time she is a world traveller who was born in America (her father is from Chicago) and has spent time in Africa, Central America as well as with her paternal family in the US. Her professional experience ranges from cinema and television to graphic design but, being Italian, food always takes a central place in her life even when she travels. She is a third generation serious home cook, passing countless hours at the apron strings of her mother and grandmother absorbing family recipes then transforming this knowledge into her popular, award-winning food blog Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino. She is now embarking on a new adventure, returning to television but this time in front of the camera to explore the variety and richness of Italian cheeses via Italy’s number one food channel, Gambero Rosso. Here we chat with Eleonora, who is also a co-founder of Casa Mia, about her love of cheese, the discoveries she’s made while shooting the program – A B Cheese – and why Italian products are so good.
Casa Mia: Where did your love of cheese begin?
Eleonora Baldwin: Would you believe me if I told you I did not eat cheese at a young age? While I was already stuffing my face with seafood risotto, chicken liver crostini and glazed asparagus spears at age 4, I rebuffed cheese: its pungent aromas, bold flavors and visible molds had no appeal. I did not eat any form of cheese, save for the chunk of Parmigiano my Nonna would feed me before lunch (secretly paired with a sip of dry sherry). Then one day at age 15, attending a vernissage at the Brazilian Embassy, I caught sight of the Ambassador’s daughter (my age) casually nibbling on a messy dollop of gorgonzola and a sliver of fresh pear. I found that gesture so elegant, chic, sophisticated. In classic teenage behaviour, I imitated her, and the sensory experience was so powerful that it alone was enough to end my cheese embargo, forever. Now I consume ridiculous amounts of cheese and am on a quest to find – and taste – all the cheese Italy has to offer. And that’s a lot of cheese! The show A B Cheese is a reflection of this manic desire. In it I play myself, a food writer obsessed with cheese, and I keep a travel journal of all the great products and people I encounter in the course of my roving research. For my waistline, this has turned out to be a never ending adventure!
CM: How does cheese fit into everyday Italian life and what are the different ways of using it?
EB: Cheese is a big part of the Italian diet and its origins go way back. Roman legions would feed an ounce of sheep’s milk cheese (pecorino) to their soldiers every day as a complement to their ration of farro soup and bread. Later, when meat and other animal proteins were no longer readily available – think 19th and 20th century economic downturns – cheese products and their long shelf life helped sustain workers and delivered nutritional value to an otherwise poor diet.
Cheese nowadays provides the Italian table with a wonderful multiplicity of offers: it is a condiment, it’s an ingredient, and a food unto itself. Cheese can be grated, shaved, mixed into or flaked over savory risottos, pasta, and skirt steak or carpaccio; it’s melted into fondue or added to soups, sandwiches, layered in baked dishes. . .the list goes on. But, cheese can also be eaten as is, sliced alongside fruit, jams and chutneys, honey, nuts, pomegranate kernels, balsamic vinegar or––my favorite––by itself.
CM: Have you ever made your own cheese?
EB: During the course of the show’s filming I had the opportunity to hand-sever my own mozzarella. Not very successfully though. The mozzarella mass at this point in the process is boiling hot and the artisans that make mozzarella on a daily basis are accustomed to handling it. I on the other hand am a city slicker with butterfingers, so I squealed and cut a rather ugly looking bocconcino. It tasted great but that wasn’t my doing, rather the freshness of the milk (thank you bufala!) and the talent of the mastri casari, the cheese makers.
CM: During your research for A B Cheese, what were the most surprising discoveries?
EB: Well, definitely the passion, commitment and the amount of work that there is in making cheese. You really have to love your job to do it right, especially in the case of those cheese makers who are also farmers–raising milk-producing bovines and ovines on their property–since these folks never, ever have down time. Animals need to be milked every day (often twice a day) and the fresh milk needs to be made into cheese straight away. This means no vacation, no time off, no holiday. That takes serious determination and dedication. One other thing I also discovered is that some of the best cheese makers are women: resilient, strong, determined and passionate beings that embrace the toils and sacrifice of this ancient craft in the name of love.
CM: Since Italy, like every country, has products representative of each region where did you find the most interesting in terms of variety and tradition?
EB: Impossible to say. The biodiversity in terms of cheese that Italy boasts is staggering. Each region, province, locality, borough, county––down to even smaller rural centers, hilltop towns and neighborhoods even––produces a wide variety of regional cheese. Each is dictated by climate, geography and seasonality. The Alpine pastures and mountain areas give us amazing cow’s milk cheeses, stinky washed rinds and moldy blues; coastal, marshy lands provide us with buffalo stretch cheeses like mozzarella and, with the same technique, fior di latte, provolone, scamorza, burrata and many others made with cow’s milk. In the south and on the islands sheep and goat’s milk are transformed into stellar pecorino, robiola and, according to the whim of the “casaro” (the cheese-maker), all the milks of different animals and breeds and various cheese-making techniques can be cross-mixed, giving us infinite flavor combinations and possibilities.
CM: Today there is a tendency to eat processed, easily produced cheese for the price and convenience. What do you think is the future of cheese production in Italy?
EB: Italy has just been hit with a new EU regulation that seeks to lift the ban on cheeses made with powdered, condensed and reconstituted milk. This is an insult to our cultural cheesemaking heritage. Currently, no Italian cheese products made using powdered milk can be sold in or exported out of Italy because of a 1974 law designed to protect the quality of Italian products. It’s up to us to combat the allure of easily available, engineered foods and to educate younger generations about the importance of quality over convenience–both in the home and market–as well as in classrooms and through the media. By taking serious action against this sad trend, consumers can safeguard not only tradition, the work of farmers and producers, but also protect the quality of the food we ingest ourselves and what we feed our families.
CM: Since Italy is renowned for its food and wine, what is your theory as to why this is so?
Italy is not a country that rebels easily. Italians complain a lot but are a lazy population when it comes to firing up a revolution. But don’t touch their food and wine! When a short time ago the European Commission allowed winemakers in the EU to use sugar to increase the alcohol content in their wine, the (just) outrage in Italy went viral. I feel that this EU challenge to a traditional food like cheese will find great opposition. Some suggest consumers should stop purchasing low-quality cheese tout court, thus lowering the demand and theoretically cutting off the supply. Here’s another idea, why don’t we all start making our own cheese? Go back to basics, raise our own farm animals, shift our habits to follow Nature and the animal world’s routine, the cycle of the seasons, etc. We should take back lost craftsmanship, learn forgotten techniques and apply them to new lifestyles. It could be a way to guarantee artisan quality on our plate.
Believe me, it’s a lot of work and may be an utopian dream but in the end it could be worth trying.
A B Cheese premieres on Gambero Rosso Channel, broadcast on the SKY platform channel 412 on November 12 at 9:30pm
Elizabeth Janus is a passionate traveller, and makes it a point to peruse the farmer’s markets in every place she visits to get an immediate pulse of the city. For the last decade, she has been guiding discerning clients on food adventures at farmer’s markets, speciality shops and into her home for unique Italian meals to experience Italy as an Italian..