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Biella cheeses: keys facts from the dairy

From macagn' to toma, a selection of typical dairy specialties and where to taste them: not to be missed

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One of the advantages of life in the alpine pastures is undoubtedly being able to enjoy excellent cheeses. Especially in the Biella uplands, whose cuisine is known for the variety and excellence of its dairy products. From farmhouse butter to the famous macagn’, the cheeses of Piemonte - and especially in the area known as the Alpi Biellesi – are a veritable local treasure. And visitors to Oasi Zegna can try them in an unparalleled natural environment, in various locations in Trivero Valdilana’s nature park. Here’s our list – in alphabetical order and not claiming to be exhaustive – of certain Biella mountain specialties we think you really shouldn’t miss.

Bëddu is a short-aged semi-fat cheese obtained from cow’s milk from a single milking, top-skimmed after standing 12 hours in the traditional copper vats. Cylindrical in shape, it’s eaten fresh, even on the day it’s made, still tasting of milk and slightly wet with whey. After 8 to 15 days ageing on straw covered pinewood planks, the cheese is covered with a pale straw-colored patina (its “camisa” or shirt) and has a strong flavor and a creamy consistency. Fresh bëddu has a delicate flavor with aromatic notes of alpine herbs. It’s paired traditionally with spring salads dressed with walnut oil or apple mostarda. 

Burro di cascina (farmhouse butter) is made by allowing the fat to surface naturally and then working it in a butter churn to separate the fat globules from the buttermilk. The fat thus obtained is washed several times in cold water, shaped into slabs and packed (burro di casone). In dairies, the separation is by centrifuging and special bacterial cultures may be added to improve the organoleptic qualities (“dairy butter” or “table butter”), or the centrifuged cream may be left to ferment spontaneously (“contrifuged butter”). Also very common is butter made with milk whey in a process that uses the fat left in the liquid after cheese making (“whey butter”).

Lactic caprino is one of the caprini cheeses, either pure goat’s milk or mixed with cow’s milk. It’s a naturally fermented cheese with a distinct aroma and consistency: it comes in various forms – cylindrical, conical, pyramidal – and may be eaten fresh or after brief ageing. It’s sold in its natural state or with a surface covering of aromatic herbs, grape pomace or ashes. It is pure white in color and has a silky feel in the mouth, with a characteristic fragrance, flavor and aroma.

Macagn’ is a full-fat cow’s milk cheese made by curdling unpasteurized freshly drawn milk. The curd is heated to over 40° C, being broken up at the same time, extracted and then worked by hand. The cheeses are then given a short or moderate ageing (minimum 20 days, maximum 2 months). Macagn’ is compact and between white and straw yellow in color. It has a delicate flavor with an aroma of alpine grasses and herbs. It’s named after a grazing ground in Valsesia, at 2,200 meters above sea level, traditionally used by Biella dairy farmers.

Maccagno differs from macagn’ in that it’s made with both pasteurized and unpasteurized full-fat cow’s milk. It’s a semi-cooked cheese made all over the Biella area in much the same way as macagn’ in terms of the heating, breaking up and pressing of the curd. Cylindrical forms are ripened in cool and damp conditions for periods varying from 20 days to 3 months, during which they take on increasingly intense and distinctive consistency and flavor.

Mascherpa is made by taking whey left over from the making of toma or macagn’ and putting it in a vat where it is brought to the boil and a small amount of lemon juice or vinegar is added to help coagulate the casein. Tiny flakes come to the surface and are skimmed off and left to drain for a couple of days in loose-woven cloth. The result is then worked together with aromatic herbs and crushed juniper berries. The forms – cylindrical sticks or truncated cones – are left to age by a hearth for periods ranging from one week to three months, during which they gradually grow firmer and stronger tasting.

Toma biellese is made with milk drawn in two successive milkings from cows of the “pezzata rossa di Oropa” breed. It is then partially skimmed, heated to 38° C and coagulated by adding rennet. The curd is broken up into “rice grains”, extracted and pressed manually, often mechanically too. The cheese is usually salted by immersion, followed by drying and wiping (with a cloth soaked in brine) for at least a week, after which it is ripened, even for months. This cheese is straw colored and compact and grows stronger in taste with ageing.

Toma brusca has a rather special consistency due to the acidity of the milk used. Traditionally, it was made by mixing milk drawn in the evening (and kept in a warm place so it started to ferment under the action of bacteria during the night) with milk drawn the morning after. Nowadays it’s made with full-fat cow’s milk, rennet and bacterial culture, and comes in cylindrical forms weighing around three kilos. This white, semi-hard cheese is compact and slightly granular and is aged for 30 to 90 days, becoming more compact, smoother and tastier.

Tomino di Sordevolo is a fresh cheese with a gelatinous consistency. Made with full-fat milk, it comes in forms weighing around 400 grams. As soon as the milk is drawn, rennet is added and the whole is rested for around an hour, after which the curd is broken into large lumps. The curd is then extracted, put in molds to drain and immediately sent to market. It’s eaten on its own, with a pinch of salt, or mixed with oil, vinegar, salt and spices (sancarlìn and frachèt) or flavored with some traditional apple mostarda. 

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