Overview: Formaggio and Cacio
Every child knows that there are two kinds of cheese: sprinkle cheese and melty cheese.
The king of sprinkle cheeses is Parmigiano Reggiano, which also has the distinction of
being mentioned more often in literature than any other cheese in the world. The most
magnificent of the melties is mozzarella. They are, of course, both Italian. These cheeses
are representative of some of the best of Italian regional cuisine. But there are oh, so
many, many more. Hundreds.
For starters, there are two different words for cheese in Italian. Both come from Latin.
Formaggio is from the Latin word forma, which means shape or mold, because cheeses
were put into molds or made into various shapes. They still are: wheels, logs, pyramids,
rounds, and other shapes. Formaggio is used more in the north. The central and southern
Italian word “Cacio,” as in the pasta sauce Cacio e Pepe (Cheese and Pepper), comes
from a different Latin word, caseus. That is also the origin of the English word “cheese.”
Whatever they call it, Italian cheese makers do not have years of experience behind
them, or even centuries. In some cases, they have millennia. Sicily was famous for its
sheep and goat cheeses 2500 years ago, in the 5th century B.C. The oldest Sicilian recipe
is for fish dressed with olive oil and cheese. Two thousand years ago, the Romans
invented smoked cheese.
The range of Italian cheeses is enormous: sweet, creamy, fresh; aged for a few days,
months, or years; mild, sharp, blue, smoked. Soft, hard, semi-hard, semi-soft. Goat,
sheep, cow, water buffalo, and combinations thereof. Some are studded with truffles,
some with olives. Some have wine added. The word in Italian for “drunk” is ubriaco.– also
the name of a semi-hard cow milk cheese with a distinctive purple rind. The peasants used
to hide the cheese in vats of grape must when the tax collector came around, and
discovered that it also formed an attractive and protective rind.
Many of the cheeses are DOP or IGP. DOP stands for Denominazione d'Origine Protetta –
Denomination of Protected Origin. IGP stands for Indicazione Geografica Protetta, which
means Indication of Protected Origin. These designations were created to make
consumers aware of the authenticity of these foods, because both the DOP and IGP
designations are guaranteed by the European Union. Italy accounts for about a fifth of all
the DOP and IGP products in Europe, with a total of 159. France has 152; Spain, 105.