Welcome back to CODY’S WORLD OF CHEESE , where our resident cheesemonger Cody Reiss explains what funky fromages you should definitely be eating.
What’s sour, salty, and slowly destroying itself from the outside in? Har har—I guess I set myself up for that one. Besides ME (womp womp), the other correct answer is one of my favorite Italian cheeses, and this week’s cave-aged cowboy from a spaghetti town out west: Castelrosso.
Castelrosso comes from the Piedmont region of Italy, where the Rosso family has been churning out wicked wheels™ since 1894. It’s a cow’s milk cheese and, texture-wise, it would probably be classified as “semi-hard” (also my nickname in Hebrew school—don’t ask). Beyond these basic details, Castelrosso can be tough to pin down. While this salty little crumble cake doesn’t fit easily into categories like “Cheddar” or “Alpine Style,” it does fit easily into your mouth—depending, that is, on how big your mouthy cheese chasm is.
Castelrosso is also known as Toma Brusca, or “acid cheese.” While I haven’t eaten Castelrosso on acid (the only thing I consume while tripping is sweet jazz), I do know that some tart-hungry, freak-ass cheesemakers allow the milk and curds to ferment and sour at various stages of the process, and the milk itself comes from a breed of red cows called Pezzata Rossa that are fed a steady diet of Warheads and sour straws (OK, maybe not—but they do produce a naturally acidic milk). Castelrosso is also a ‘natural rind” cheese, meaning that the outside of each wheel is a complex ecosystem of the native molds and bacteria inherited from the atmosphere that it was aged in, just like I inherited “tired eyes” and “crippling frugality” from my mother. This is one of those cheeses where you must eat the rind—it’s a crucial part of the overall flavor! Over the four to six months that it ages, these bacteria slowly consume and transform the cheese from the outside in, turning the once chalky insides into a half-inch thick, fudgy “creamline” between the rind and main interior of the cheese.
Top note brings maximum earthiness, somewhere between a dog’s wet, dirty tennis ball and moldy Band-Aids. As those initial nasal companions fade, what remains is a sort of dark sweetness, reminiscent of those rectangular See’s coffee-flavored lollipops.
Another notable characteristic: Castelrosso is a “milled-curd” cheese, meaning that after the curd is formed and cooked, it’s milled—or cut into small pieces—and salted, leading to a denser, crumblier final product. In short, Castelrosso is basically like Cheddar hotwifing an aged goat cheese while her husband, a loving and kinky-as-hell French tomme, watches from the corner. But, um…
A friend of pickles. Photo by Hilary Pollack
Anyway, let’s run this tangy little tongue tapper through the Sensory Snarf Test, shall we? First, we scope and squish. A quick cross-section reveals a sick textural trifecta: the thick outer rind, the gooey creamline, and the flakey, cakey, and unmistakably dank insides. The natural rind looks like the rugged surface of a groovy, stank-ass planet: Its brown surface, the color of oiled almond skins, is pockmarked and mottled with extraterrestrial molds of ashen grey and occasional mustard yellow. Below, the creamline is off-white, smooth and flexible. And at its core, it’s much like me: very white, very dense, and visibly fragile.
Next, we sniff. Top note brings maximum earthiness, somewhere between a dog’s wet, dirty tennis ball and moldy Band-Aids. As those initial nasal companions fade, what remains is a sort of dark sweetness, reminiscent of those rectangular See’s coffee-flavored lollipops.
Finally, we snarf. If for some reason you only ate the dry interior of the cheese, you’d get some briny feta vibes… mineral, tangy, and oceanic. If you just ate the rind and creamline, it would taste like eating a Brie rind that was buried in wet soil for a bit. But when all three come together, these flavors intertwine and become more nuanced and more intense. It’s a taste that can only be described as a cave-flavored potato chip. It’s incredibly complex and addicting, and likely different from most cheeses you’ve tried before.
Many slices of Castelrosso were harmed in the writing of this article, and though I can now hardly look at myself in the mirror, I have discovered some pretty chill ways to smush on it. Use it the way you might use feta or goat cheeses—letting chunky nuglets slip from your sweaty hands into warm grain salads or greens with other savory homies like marinated artichokes and roasted walnuts. Balance the acidic saltiness with a sweet jam for a fruit-topped-cheesecake-like flavor, or lean into it with all sorts of chill pickled and fermented goodies. Or if you’re like me, you’ll cut a thick slice, slide it into a hot pan with a little oil, and watch the outside become golden brown like chicken skin, and as the insides just barely begin to melt, you’ll mush it into your teeth compartment for a crazy, almost self-contained (and very salty) grilled cheese. Then, maybe put some jam on that.
Smear some blueberry jam on your Castelrosso and it’ll taste like a magic slice of cheesecake. Photo by Hilary Pollack.
For the liquid lowdown: The cakey and smooth textures would love to have a nice little ‘hang out and touch’ with some oobly-goobly (a.k.a. Mr. Bubbles, a.k.a. something alcoholic and preferably effervescent). A jammy red would compliment the saltiness of the cheese, while a crisp, dry white could heighten Castelrosso’s tanginess, and a malty beer would provide a roasty toastiness that would certainly get along well with the earthy flavors. I might even pair this with kombucha—but then again, I spent my formative college years at UC Berkeley…
Like trustworthy friends and meaning in life, Castelrosso can be tough to find. If you can’t track it down, try finding something from the subsection of British Territorial cheese hilariously known as “the crumblies,” which includes a bunch of milled-curd cheeses like Cheshire and Caerphilly. Also look for Castelrosso’s older, drier, and more common cousin, Castelmagno. If you want to go deeper in the world of complex tart and texture, grab a nug of the very dank goat cheese, Blanc Bleu Tambour. If Castelrosso isn’t earthy enough for you, grab an old French tomme.
Or, perhaps consider scouring a garden for some Brie rinds and Band-Aids, you sick, terrible monster.
Cody Reiss is a comedian, cook, and cheesemonger at Murray’s Cheese in New York City. He has made cheeses at home and on farms in Brazil and New York, and has traveled to more than 35 different countries, sampling over 350 different cheeses along the way. You can follow him on Instagram at @codyreiss .