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GORGONZOLA: King of the Blues

'Dolce' or 'Piccante,' it's one golden moldy.

March 28, 2001|Fred Plotkin | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you take the subway from Milan's Central Station to the last stop, you will reach Gorgonzola, the town that gave its name to the famous blue-green veined cheese that is Italy's answer to Roquefort and Stilton. Appropriately, you reach Gorgonzola on the Green Line.

Centuries ago, the town of Gorgonzola was a fair distance from Milan and was part of a north-south grazing trail in Lombardy stretching from the Alps to the Po River. Gorgonzola was an important stopping place, and much milk was left there. The milk drawn from cows that made this journey produced a family of cheeses called stracchino. The word comes from stracco, which means tired or exhausted, which is what the cows were at this point in their trek.

The cheese is made from whole milk that is less rich than that drawn from a cow lolling in a high Alpine meadow. Some of the milk was turned into a delicious buttery soft cheese called Stracchino. But the rest of it was destined for greater glory.

Long ago, it was found that injecting a mold called Penicillium glaucum into a new cheese would preserve it for a longer time. And for eaters who could get past the notion that the mold was unsavory or unhealthy (it is neither), an exquisitely delicious cheese awaited. The town of Gorgonzola had another feature that made it ideal for producing its namesake cheese: damp caves with high humidity and constant temperature that were the ideal environment for aging the cheese for up to a year.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 4, 2001 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 21 inches; 723 words Type of Material: Recipe; Correction
Wrong Amount-In the recipe for Polenta, Gorgonzola and Savoy Cabbage Torte that ran with "King of the Blues" (March 28), the wrong amount of cornmeal was listed. The following is the correct recipe.
Polenta, Gorgonzola and Savoy Cabbage Torte (Torta di Verza e Polenta)
Adapted from "Lidia's Italian Table" by Lidia Mattichio Bastianich. This makes an excellent appetizer or can be served in place of a pasta course.
POLENTA
8 cups water, or as needed
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups coarse yellow cornmeal
In a small saucepan, bring 4 cups of the water to a simmer. Keep this "backup" water hot, covered, over medium-low heat. In a 3-to 4-quart cast iron, enameled or other heavy saucepan, bring the remaining 4 cups water, the bay leaves and salt to a boil over medium-high heat. When it is boiling, add the olive oil.
Place the cornmeal in a wide bowl within reach of the stove. Scoop up a small handful of the cornmeal and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or flat-nosed spatula, let it sift slowly through your fingers into the seasoned boiling water. The cornmeal should fall like rain into the water. Sift the remaining cornmeal into the water a small handful at a time, stirring constantly and paying special attention to the edges of the pot. It should take about 5 minutes to add all the cornmeal.
When all the cornmeal has been added, the mixture should be smooth and thick and begin to "perk," meaning that large bubbles will rise to the surface. Reduce heat to medium-low-the polenta should continue to perk-and continue stirring until the mixture becomes too thick to stir easily, about 4 minutes. Add enough of the backup water-about 1 cup-to restore the mixture to a smooth stirring consistency. Stir again until the mixture is again too thick to stir easily. Continue adding the backup water and stirring like this until the cornmeal is tender, about 20 minutes from the time the cornmeal was added. As the polenta cooks, you will need to add less water each time and stir longer between additions. It is possible that you will not need to add all the water.
When the cornmeal is tender, stir the polenta without adding water until it is shiny and begins to gather around the spoon as you stir it, about 5 to 10 minutes. The polenta should be thick enough to stand a spoon in it. Remove bay leaves. Pour the polenta into a lightly buttered 2-inch-deep, 8-inch-round cake pan. Let stand until cool, then refrigerate (covered in plastic) until completely chilled, about 4 to 5 hours.
TO COMPLETE THE DISH
Salt
2 baking potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
1 small head (2 pounds) Savoy cabbage
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, li

Other areas of northwestern Italy that had caves began to make a similar cheese and call it Gorgonzola. The most famous example came from the Piedmontese province of Novara at the Lombardy border. In recent times, the town of Gorgonzola has become part of the fast-growing Milan metropolitan area, and very little cheese is produced there. Nowadays, most of the cheese officially called Gorgonzola comes from near Novara. Though some of it is still aged in caves (a process called all'antico-in the ancient style), most of the cheese is produced in factories under computer-controlled temperatures and humidity under exacting sanitary conditions.

There are two types of Gorgonzola-dolce (sweet) and piccante (sharp). Perhaps it is strange to think of a veined, mold-laced cheese as sweet, but the dolce is. It has the buttery texture and yellow color of Stracchino with tang from the mold. This cheese spreads and melts very well. Interestingly, as the cheese is heated, the mold disappears; what is left is a sensational tangy hot cream.

According to Carlo Fiori, whose company, Luigi Guffanti, has made cheese in Arona (near Novara) since 1876, Gorgonzola dolce ages typically for 60 days and should be eaten young and fresh. It will not improve with age. The piccante, which ages for up to 90 days, is whiter and more crumbly than the dolce and has a pronounced bite. It will even improve with more aging. It is great for eating, ideally when matched with ripe pears and walnut meats, and washed down with a dessert wine such as Picolit or Torcolato from Italy or Sauternes from France. The piccante also melts well, especially when used in a pasta sauce. It also is the ideal companion for mostarda vicentina, a sort of fruit sauce from Vicenza made with quince puree, minced candied fruit and mustard seeds. You can make a home version of this using quince (if available) or pears. In the Lombard town of Cremona, people drizzle honey on Gorgonzola and eat it as a dessert.

Gorgonzola cheese comes wrapped in foil, which you should discard when serving. You might notice that Gorgonzola has a pockmarked exterior with an orange tinge. This too should be discarded, as it contains the only molds that are not necessarily pleasant to eat. Gorgonzola is widely available in good cheese shops, and certain mail-order purveyors sell very high-quality versions. Store the cheese in the coldest part of the refrigerator, wrapped tightly in plastic, until ready to serve. Let it stand, unwrapped, for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Two sources for excellent Gorgonzola:

* Murray's Cheese: (888) 692-4339; http://www.murrayscheese.com

* Esperya: (877) 907-2525; http://www.esperya.com/usa

*

Tablecloth and glass trivet with dome cover from Smith & Hawken stores. Green plate in grilled cheese photo from Pier 1 stores.

Polenta, Gorgonzola and Savoy Cabbage Torte (Torta di Verza e Polenta)

Active Work Time: 1 hour 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 5 hours 10 minutes* Vegetarian

Adapted from "Lidia's Italian Table" by Lidia Mattichio Bastianich. This makes an excellent appetizer or can be served in place of a pasta course.

POLENTA

8 cups water, or as needed

2 fresh or dried bay leaves

1 tablespoon coarse salt

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons coarse yellow cornmeal

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