A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD
As early as 1300 AD we find Toma all over Piedmont, popular with people from all walks of life. In addition to being the favorite meal of the farmers, accompanied by a slice of black bread, it filled the pies of nobles with its soft paste with a sweet and aromatic flavor. A real citizen of the world, therefore, also present on the French side, Savoyard and Aosta Valley. If the medieval medicine advised the noble classes from eating spicy and slightly seasoned cheese, the same was not for the Toma. "There are foods for villans and foods for gentlemen" the doctor Pantaleone da Confienza sentenced in service to the court of the Savoy, and quoted a famous saying at the time: "Given with a hand, even the cheese is healthy".
The Toma Piemontese is strictly a cow milk cheese, very high in protein in that it derives from races related to Friesian cattle. It belongs to the washed-rind category, whose wheels are turned and washed in brine, giving the rind a special composition. It is cylinder-shaped with flat faces, has a diameter ranging from 15 to 35 cm (5.9-13.8 in), height from 6 to 12 cm (2.3-13.7 in), and weighs 1.8 to 9 kg (4-19.0 lbs.). It is made in two versions:
- fat: with a soft paste made of whole milk (min 40% fat in dry matter)
- medium-fat: with a semi-hard, elastic paste, made of semi-skimmed milk (min 20% fat in dry matter);
Aging: variable according to size and weight; from a minimum of 15 days for wheels weighing less than 6 kg (13.2 lbs.) to a maximum of 60 days for wheels up to 9 kg (19.8 lbs.).
PDO TOMA PIEMONTESE – THE TRADITION OF AN ENTIRE REGION
The history of the Piedmont Toma cheese began in the mountains, and spread to the plains throughout the centuries. It is by far the most common cheese in the region, and one of the most ancient. Its secrets have been handed down from generation to generation for at least a thousand years. The earliest records in Piedmont are dated 11th century, when it was used as an ingredient in the pastus, a food distributed to the underprivileged or to manual labourers. Given the scarcity of salt, the cheese was used to add flavour to poor people’s soups. The doctor Pantaleone da Confienza explains this well in his Summa lacticinorum: “During the aging process, fermentation makes it so that the cheeses develop an especially stinging flavour, which makes it a useful tool for the poor, first of all because – due to the strong taste – you only eat a little at a time; secondly, because the cheese is so spicy that it renders additional spices or salt unnecessary”.
At the eye: cylinder-shaped with flat faces. The rind is smooth, elastic, of a straw yellow colour tending towards brown upon aging. White or straw yellow paste with very small eyes.
At the nose: Delicate and harmonic, with fresh milk scents and notes of cream and butter.
At the palate: Sweet, soft, and delicate flavour, evoking straw and grass, with a slightly acidic aroma.
Medium fat Toma Piemontese
At the eye: cylinder-shaped with flat faces. The rind is rough, of a darker colour, ranging from straw yellow to brown upon aging. Semi-hard, elastic, compact paste, with a straw yellow colour and hinted eyes, spread evenly.
§ At the nose: fragrant smell, growingly distinguished upon aging.
§ At the palate: wholesome, intense, and almost rustic flavour, which becomes spicy upon aging. It may express pleasantly dominating notes of pasture milk.
AREAS OF PRODUCTION
The “Piemontese” appellation that the cheese boasts is the expression of its roots; an archipelago of different realities, though witnessing the same origins. The technique to make Toma is indeed strictly linked to the transhumance, during which the cattle herders availed themselves of the Alpine pastures in the summer, to then return to the flatlands in the winter. In parallel with its different production traditions, one can draw a line along the entire Alpine arch of the area: Toma di Val Casotto, Toma di Ormea, Toma del Pesio, Toma di Elva, Toma di Susa, Toma di Boves, Toma di Lanzo, Toma di Biella, etc.
The milk is left to rest a maximum of 12 hours (for the fat, whole milk version) up to a maximum of 24 hours (for the medium-fat, semi-skimmed milk version). The wheels are subsequently skimmed naturally in boilers and brought to coagulation. The rennet is then added, and the mixture is left to rest and further coagulate, after which a rough breakage of the curd is carried out, often by means of turning over the topmost layer that has cooled down. A short pause favours the initial, substantial drainage of the whey. The composition is then additionally sliced, then often heated – with the partial cooking temperature up to 48°C (118°F). The curd is ground until the clumps are the size of a corn kernel or grain of rice (for the whole milk version and semi-skimmed milk version respectively). The mixture is then left to rest for a few minutes to allow the curd to deposit on the bottom and separate from the whey. Subsequently, the curd is lifted and placed in moulds, then – following an initial pressing operation – it is left to rest, and expels the remaining whey (the wheels are turned repeatedly in this phase). The cheese is then salted by hand using coarse salt spread on each of the two faces, or using brine. Aging is carried out in cool caves with an 85% humidity level (tolerance: ±13%) and a temperature range between 6 and 10°C (43-50°F).
In this phase, the wheels are once again salted using brine. It is only when the trademark PDO logo is engraved on the upper face upon the end of the aging process that the product may be considered authentic. The “Toma Piemontese DOP” logo may be recognized also due to the presence of a blue, stylized cow with “Toma Piemontese” written in white inside a tricolour Italian flag strip.
HISTORY AND LEGENDS
The history of the Toma is stuttered with anecdotes. It dates back to the Roman ages. Legend tells that Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general, ordered to stop in the Susa Valley when passing through the Alps, specifically to taste the lait brusc (namely “acidic milk”) Toma, because of course it was delicious, but particularly because it was known to be an aphrodisiac. Such virtue enraptured Hannibal’s soldier’s as well, who not only fell in love with the cheese, but even with the lovely cheesemakers, so much that they abandoned their general.
HOW TO ENJOY IT, WHAT WINES TO PAIR WITH
The PDO Toma Piemontese pairs well with honey, jam, and truffle. Due to its ability to fuse, it is exceptional in the preparation of soups, potato pies, and – in its fat version – to garnish polenta in the local concia recipe (with cheeses and butter). In its medium-fat version it is used to prepare fondue, a very filling dish made using milk and melted cheeses, a Piedmont specialty with an intense flavour.
It is traditionally combined with local wines. The fat version makes a pair with white wines such as Cortese dell’Alto Monferrato, Gavi, Roero Arneis, or Favorita. The medium-fat version is perfect when accompanied by red wines with a full body, a strong personality, and intense fragrances, moderately soft and fresh, relatively tannic, and slightly warm; depending on the cheese’s aging: Freisa D’Asti, Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato, Verduno Pelaverga, Dolcetto d'Alba, or Barbera d’Asti.