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The birthplace of Gorgonzola. Maybe.

By Rebecca Helm-RopelatoContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 2005


Ever since someone told me a few years ago that there is a town in northern Italy named Gorgonzola, and that the townspeople, the Gorgonzolesi, claim that their ancestors created the famous cheese of the same name, I have wanted to go there to find out if the proof is in the pudding - or in this case, the curd.

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In short, is the Gorgonzola in Gorgonzola really better?

I got my opportunity to find out last September. We arrived there on the second day of the town's autumn fair. The annual three-day festival celebrates the history and development of the rich, creamy cheese.

Meeting us at the metro station, after our half-hour ride from our homebase in downtown Milan, was Enzo Casanova. A friend of a friend, he and his family live in an adjoining town, and he offered to give us an aficionado's tour of Gorgonzola.

I confess I was licking my lips in anticipation of the taste tour that I was sure was awaiting us.

This was the moment I learned that no Gorgonzola is made in Gorgonzola anymore. One reason, Enzo pointed out, is that the town has been absorbed into the greater Milan metropolitan area and is no longer the big farming area it once was. Instead it's a bedroom community for commuters.

The major cheese producers are now in nearby towns and provinces, and one, Pasturo, even claims that it, rather than Gorgonzola, is the birthplace of the pungent cheese.

One thing Gorgonzola is not relinquishing, however, is its assertion that it is the place to come if you want to see where the namesake cheese was first created. The annual festival is a loud declaration of this.

The Sagra Nazionale del Gorgonzola (sagra means festival) takes over the center of the small village. The hub of the celebration is on Via Italia, the town's short main street.

For the first half hour, we wandered along this street, happily accepting free samples of Gorgonzola dolce and Gorgonzola piquant, served melted or at room temperature on bite-size chunks of bread.

Somewhat satisfied, we followed Enzo as he led us through an adjacent street to another section of the village a few blocks away. Along the way, we passed more booths with various types and brands of Gorgonzola and freshly made breads on sale. Restaurants were also open, with tables and umbrellas set up outside their doors.

Did Leonardo enjoy Gorgonzola?

At the end of the street is the narrow Martesana canal. Admired and studied by Leonardo da Vinci, the canal was built in 1457 and is one of a small network spreading out in various directions from Milan. The canal attracts many visitors to Gorgonzola, Enzo told us, adding that according to local legend, da Vinci also laid out the master plan for the village while he was visiting in the area.

It was just after we crossed the low-arched stone bridge over the canal that we saw the other big star of the fair, Amaranto. She was hustling her 1,500 pounds across her temporary pen toward an admiring crowd of fans. Thrusting her big head through the narrow metal poles of the makeshift fence, she placidly accepted the caresses of the dozens of hands of her fans, her great eyes gazing here and there, thinking only a cow knows what.

A few yards away we met her owner, Emilio Manzoni. A dairy farmer from Gorgonzola, Mr. Manzoni was demonstrating how to make a simple cheese and then distributing small scoops of the freshly made white curd to his audience. "In my opinion, it needs a little sugar and a little salt," one taster said, playing critic. Mr. Manzoni just smiled good-naturedly and continued handing out the samples.

When I asked about Amaranto, he told me she is a Brown Swiss, the ancient breed from the Alps that first provided the milk for making Gorgonzola. Today, he said, cheesemakers prefer another breed, Holstein Friesian, because its milk output is greater.

Once upon a cow