So how do you feel about smoked cheeses?
It may sound gimmicky, an idea of how to make a cheese distinctive, or a way to put aroma and flavor back into a cheese that may have been crafted from pasteurized milk. “Smoked cheese” may sound like a new concept yet the practice has been around for many centuries, possibly since the Bronze Age.
One cheese type that has received the smoking step longer than just about any other is the Fiore Sardo, a pressed sheep milk cheese from Sardinia. The name does not indicate “smoked” – instead it translates to “Flower of Sardegna.” A native breed of the island provides the milk for the cheese and traditionally the young cheeses were cured in huts containing wood-burning fireplaces, hence the “smoking.”
Sardinia is an island of weather contrasts: near the coast it is more tropical, while in the central upper elevations it can be much colder. The one-room huts’ WBFP’s would keep the shepherds warm at night and these same rooms would be the ones used for curing the cheeses. The smoking helped dry the cheeses and imparted a subtle smoky flavor deep into their cores. The smoking also helped to keep away pests.
A similar practice was taken up in northern Spain’s Navarre region, where Idiazábal went through the same curing process, and for the same reasons. Which region adopted this first?
My hunch is that this practice occurred in Sardegna before Navarre, and possibly somewhere in the Middle East long before it started in Sardegna. Records on the earliest cheese smoking are scant.
Form follows function. The smoking is subtle in each of these internationally protected cheeses; it is not the dominant flavor note. That smoked flavor would likely be more persistent if these cheeses were crafted from compromised milk. Fortunately neither of these cheeses are.
- Max McCalman