The birthplace of Gorgonzola. Maybe.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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

But Amaranto and her ancestors still have the place of honor in the legend of how Gorgonzola came to be created, and so Manzoni brings her to the fair for people to see.

Although no official documentation exists of the cheese's birth, its origins are estimated to go as far back as the 13th century or earlier.

In one version of the story, it is said that in those days, herdsmen from the north brought their cows down from the mountains in September to graze on the lush, sweet grass of the plains surrounding Milan. The first stop along the southern migration was the tiny settlement of Gorgonzola. To show their gratitude to the local landowners for the grazing rights, the herdsmen offered them the milk from the herd. It was with this large supply of milk that the Gorgonzolesi started to make and sell cheese.

This first cheese was called stracchino, from the Italian word meaning "tired." It is a reference to the milk that came from the cows that were exhausted after their long migration south.

The lowly stracchino's successor, Gorgonzola, was an accidental invention.

As writer Oriana Morini Casalini recounts it, one evening, a love-struck casaro, or cheesemaker, rushed out to meet his girlfriend without finishing his work. The following morning, fearing he might lose his job if it was discovered he had thrown out the previous day's batch of unfinished cheese curd, he surreptitiously dumped it in with the new milk supply.

This set in motion a process that produced a greenish-blue-veined curd with a strange look and a pungent odor - sometimes compared to smelly socks by detractors - and Gorgonzola cheese was born.

We thought about this as we headed home with Enzo and to a dinner, prepared by his wife, Teresa, of pasta with Gorgonzola sauce.

Teresa had recently completed a course in gastronomy offered by La Cucina Italiana and is passionate about food. Now she is using her training as a volunteer at the school her 11-year-old son, Marco, attends. She gives the children lessons in food appreciation and nutrition.

The world's best cheeses

In her small but well-equipped kitchen, as she was preparing the pasta sauce, I asked Teresa if she agreed with the popular notion that France has the best cheeses. The other three Italians sitting nearby immediately and vigorously dissented, but the more food-democratic Teresa agreed that France has excellent cheeses. Italy's cheeses are just as good, however, she said, and more varied.

And her ranking of the top three cheeses in the world? The answer was instantaneous: Parmigiano-Reggiano, grana padano, and Gorgonzola.

All Italian, of course.

Teresa's Mezzani With Walnuts and Gorgonzola

l pound mezzani (or substitute ziti, penne, or long macaroni)
5 to 7 ounces Gorgonzola cheese
1/3 to 1/2 cup walnuts, quartered
l tablespoon butter
Salt (for pasta water)
Parsley, if desired, for garnish

Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a full boil and add pasta. Cook according to package directions.

Meanwhile, cut the Gorgonzola into small pieces and put into a large pan together with the butter and about three-fourths of the walnuts. Set the pan aside.

When the pasta is done, remove it from the stove and turn the burner to high. Drain pasta, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water. Immediately add the hot pasta and 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the hot pasta water to the cheese mixture in the large pan. Place the pan on the hot burner for about 1 minute, stirring to blend. Add a little more hot pasta water, if necessary, to achieve creaminess.

Sprinkle with chopped parsley and divide among 6 dinner plates, garnishing with remaining walnuts and parsley sprigs.

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