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Mapping Italian Cheese

February 28, 2001|RUSS PARSONS

People keep saying that cheese is going to be the next wine. Bolstering that argument is the sea of varieties that confront the curious. Just when you've sorted out the various crus of Beaujolais, know the difference between DOC and VDT or master the geography of the Sonoma coast, up pops another level of refinement-which end of the Dry Creek Valley? What clone of Pinot Noir? And you start all over again. So it is with cheese-and a good thing too.

The best cheeses, like the best wines, come from specific places and reflect specific civilizations and cuisines. As a result, in some countries it seems there are more cheeses than cities. Italy is one of those. Now, to help us sort one from another, we have "Italian Cheese" (Slow Food Editore, $14) a kind of gazetteer of Italian cheese.

Covering all of the cheeses of Italy would seem an insurmountable task. By most accounts, the most definitive guide is the "Atlante dei Prodotti Tipici-I Formaggi" ('Atlas of Typical Products-the Cheeses'), which lists more than 400. The Slow Food book addresses only about half that number, but is still amazing. Photographed in loving color (flipping through the book is enough to create quite an appetite), it nevertheless supplies quite a bit of technical information-where the cheeses come from, what kinds of milk they're made from, what temperature the milk is cooked to, what kind of rennet is used. "Italian Cheese" is both beauty book and a font of trivia.

For example, of course you've heard about mozzarella di bufala, but did you know that in Campania, there is a mozzarella layered in myrtle leaves? Or that formaggio di fossa is buried in pits to age? Or about Calabrian rasco, a spectacular-looking cheese-something like a taleggio that is kept alive only by cheese makers at the Institute of Animal Husbandry at Camigliatello sulla Sila?

This book is available only from Slow Food ([212] 988-5146) but at that price, who's complaining?

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