“Wait,” my Italian father-in-law commanded, as I reached for a slice of cheese on the overflowing cheese platter. “Start with the brie, it’s the weakest. Then try this soft taleggio. After, the branzi and then you can finish with this gorgonzola,” he said, using his knife with a flourish to indicate each type of cheese. I glanced at the gorgonzola. It was so aged and molded it looked like it would get up and walk away.
I had just moved to Italy and often found myself navigating such cultural differences. I realized quickly that I didn’t need to comprehend each one, I only needed to understand enough to avoid major gaffes. Staring at the cheese platter blankly, I didn’t immediately understand the reason but the message was clear: Whatever you do, don’t eat the cheese out of order.
It’s no secret that the Italians are serious about food. Marco’s father shared his cheese-eating knowledge with the gravity one might use when passing on the secret of the nuclear codes. Don’t push the red button! I wondered who would die if the cheese was eaten out of order.
In Italy there are hundreds of different types of cheeses. Each region and province and town has its own and, when paired with others, they shouldn’t be eaten just any old way. Like ruining a good bottle of wine by following it up with boxed wine, to really appreciate the different cheeses you need to start with the weakest flavor and work your way up to the strongest. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to taste the milder cheese,” I was told.
Once I asked my Italian husband Marco if he had a favorite type of cheese. I knew from my regular trips to the neighborhood sandwich joint back in America that he had about four to choose from: Cheddar, Monterrey Jack, Swiss and Parmesan. It was already a step up from my childhood. At home my mom offered just the classics: “Yellow” or “White.”
“Parmigiano Reggiano from Parma, aged 28 months,” he replied without hesitation and I suddenly felt embarrassed to respond “sharp cheddar”.
Cheese in my Midwestern-household was a garnish to be used amply and without prejudice. We melted cheese on anything and everything, regardless of the type. I distinctly remember when the family unanimously decided it was time to upgrade from the nuclear yellow powdered cheese packets of Kraft to the thick, yellow cheese logs of Velveeta.
Now, I was being told that the cheese would “cleanse my palate.” After an appetizer, first course and second course, I wasn’t trying to cleanse anything. Still, I followed my father-in-law’s indications. Each cheese was to be eaten at its proper moment. I had come to Italy, I lived in Italy, I married an Italian and now I was determined to eat like an Italian as well.
I ate each in order, meticulously cutting off the rind with my fork and knife just as my Italian family did, erasing another memory of rubbery, yellow cheese of my childhood with each bite. The tastes ranged from a mild, fresh milk to a strong, bitter gorgonzola. I sat in wonder. What seemed like a typical cheese platter was actually an array of tastes, each cheese carrying its own identity like a DNA strand. One thing was clear: my Velveeta days were long gone.
Since then I’ve come to appreciate cheese as much as my father-in-law. We compare notes and shopping lists like giddy toddlers. “Look at what I picked up from the market,” we exclaim, “just wait until you try this!”
Months later two American friends visited us while touring Italy on their honeymoon. Like any good Italian host, I didn’t skimp on the food. Dinner began with an appetizer plate heavy on the cheeses. Presenting the platter to my guests I held it at arm’s length, explaining, “Start with this cheese first…”