The green pastures of Fontina

09 August 2023

When it comes to pasture cheeses, we cannot ignore the topic of Fontina. A beloved cheese whose name is inseparably linked to its region of origin, the Valle d’Aosta.

Indeed, Fontina is the most well-known and typical cheese of Valle d’Aosta. It’s produced using raw whole milk from a single milking of Valdostana breed cows – pezzata nera, pezzata bruna, and castana – fed on hay and valley grass. In this sense, it’s a cheese that fully embodies the taste of the meadows, the theme of Cheese 2023.

Together with Ezio Toscoz, president of the Fontina Producers Cooperative, we aim to provide an overview of this beloved cheese.

Pastures in the Valley

It can be said that practically the entire valley is dedicated to Fontina production, with the most prized being alpine – or even more so, extreme alpine – where bovine feeding plays a fundamental role. According to Toscoz: “The cheesemaking technique entirely respects the original characteristics of the milk; it starts with freshly milked raw milk, and thus with a very fresh raw material that undergoes no refrigeration or heat treatment. It’s precisely for this reason that the feeding of the dairy cattle plays a crucial role.”

“Generally, alpine Fontina has a softer and more elastic texture. In the summer period, moreover, the pasture-based diet is richer compared to winter. And this affects the milk composition: Fontina produced in high pastures quickly develops its classic aroma and distinctive traits. Alpine products are tastier due to the greater concentration of aromas from the botanical essences that the cattle feed on.”

The Fontina Producers Cooperative at Cheese 2023

The cooperative has around 180 members, of which 100 are contributors. Among these 100, there are 12 Cooperative societies that have a considerably larger organization and scale. Many companies are still family-run, with their activities generally involving the entire family and being passed down from generation to generation. You will find the cooperative’s booth in the Cheese Market area. In addition to Fontina, the cooperative also offers Toma di Gressoney, butter, and ready-to-eat Valdostana fondue.

Breeds and Animal Welfare

The various breeds, on the other hand, aren’t as significant, as pezzate rosse, pezzate nere, and castane are all present in all breeding. However, the breeding method is crucial both for environmental impact and animal welfare. Toscoz continues: “All our cattle graze for about seven months a year and are housed in the barn only in the late autumn and winter months due to the cold temperatures. Breeding practiced in Valle d’Aosta is respectful of the environment, utilizing what nature spontaneously offers without any force, and very attentive to animal welfare. Our cattle graze freely in pristine pastures that extend well beyond 2000 meters in altitude.”

The production zone, aging, and portioning of Fontina cheese encompass the entire territory of Valle d’Aosta. The milk destined for transformation into Fontina must be raw, whole, from a single milking, of bovine belonging to the Valdostana breed (Pezzata Rossa, Pezzata Nera, Nera-Castana). The feeding of dairy cattle must consist of hay and green grass produced in Valle d’Aosta.

Taste Workshop: The Meadows of the Aosta Valley

An experiential journey awaits in the Aosta Valley, amidst the scents and sights of untouched nature, from the Gressoney Valley and the toma cheeses that carry the aroma of the plant biodiversity of the alpine pastures, to the Gran Paradiso National Park. A unique opportunity to discover intriguing pressed goat cheeses and low-fat yogurt. Our journey cannot overlook the queen of Aosta Valley’s tomes, whose production still relies on numerous manual processes, making it an even more precious, prized, and rare product. It is the result of the hard work of herders and cheesemakers who honor the ancient traditions of the Aosta Valley.

Aging Process

Equally important is the aging process. The necessary environmental conditions for aging Fontina DOP are a temperature of around 8-10°C and humidity consistently above 90%. “For this reason,” Toscoz explains, galleries carved into the rock are used, where these conditions can naturally be achieved, particularly military bunkers used during World War II.

Special mention goes to the aging site in Valpelline, built inside a copper mine exploited until 1946 and converted into an aging site in 1964, capable of hosting up to 60,000 rounds of cheese.

Everybody Loves Fontina!

Fontina DOP is sold throughout Italy, particularly in the central and northern regions, and about 15% is sold abroad. Fontina is distributed in the United States, Mexico, Canada, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Bulgaria, United Kingdom, Spain, Finland.

by Silvia Ceriani, [email protected]

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

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