Gorgonzola – The Italian Blue

If you like blue cheese, but you haven’t tried Gorgonzola (), you’re going to love it. If you don’t like blue cheese, and you try Gorgonzola, you might very well start to like blue cheese! In fact, next to the traditional Piccante (pungent) variety, the milder Dolce (sweet) variety meets the palate of those who are not too fond of ‘blue’ flavors.

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The characteristic pungent aroma of Gorgonzola Piccante is due to the aromatic molds that, over a 6 month aging period, grow to fully inhabit it. As the cheese ages, it becomes compact or even crumbly because of its natural loss of moisture (down to 30-40%). This transformation also intensifies the flavor.

A slice of Gorgonzola Piccante
A slice of Gorgonzola Piccante

The Dolce variety instead (shown in the feature image) is only aged 2 to 3 months: it has only partially established molds and still contains high amounts of moisture (45%). This results in a cheese that is only mildly blue, and that is also creamy and spreadable.

Both the Dolce and the Piccante varieties are made from whole cow milk, and they have similar percentages of fat (around 25-30%).

Cheese production makes use of specific kinds of molds (Penicillia) that over the centuries were discovered capable of improving the flavor and the texture of the product. We now know that these molds are aerobic fungi that produce enzymes capable of metabolizing the milk fats and proteins, therefore completely transforming the cheese. These molds are perfectly safe to eat since they don’t release any toxins and even have antibacterial properties. The antibiotic penicillin, in fact, derives from a mold that belongs to the same family.

Out of all of the different kinds of Penicillia, only two are responsible for the characteristic flavor of the countless varieties of blue cheese: Penicillium glaucum and Penicillium roqueforti. Gorgonzola is traditionally made using the former, but the latter can also be used.

A drum of Gorgonzola
For easier distribution, the drum of is generally cut into 4 pieces.

Molds are often associated with cheese, but in most kinds of cheese, they grow only on the rind. In blue cheese, instead, the mold is encouraged to grow deeply into the cheese paste. Since Penicillia need at least minimal levels of oxygen to survive, in the production of Gorgonzola, the uncooked curds are left unpressed to favor the formation of fissures and cavities through which the mold will be able to breathe. In order to get an even more uniform growth of the mold within the paste, when the cheese is 3-4 weeks old, the rind is perforated deeply with metal needles. The mold ends up thriving on the walls of the holes, forming the characteristic green veining. In Italian, this process is called Erborinatura from the word ‘erburin’, which means ‘parsley‘ in northern Italian dialect, in reference to the similarly green color.

Origins

The exact origins of Gorgonzola are unknown, but they certainly revolve around a city that bears the same name, 15 km East of Milan, in the core of Lombardy.

Location of Gorgonzola in Italy
Milan (green dot) and Gorgonzola (red dot) in the region Lombardy.

As early as in the 9th century, Lombardy was known for the production of a soft cheese called stracchino(1). There is evidence that the stracchino made around the town of Gorgonzola developed special characteristics that made it unique – likely it was contaminated with a particular mold which is naturally present in the caves where the cheese was ripened. The “stracchino of Gorgonzola” started being appreciated as a different kind of cheese, a delicacy that then became known in all of northern Italy.

Over time, the production of Gorgonzola expanded to other parts of Lombardy, but the city of Gorgonzola maintained its prestige until the middle of the 19th century. In 1840 writer Luigi Cattaneo wrote in his Milanese publication: Il Politecnico that “while the cheesemakers of the town of Gorgonzola kept the secret of the peculiar circumstances that make this cheese special, this cheese remained their almost exclusive privilege. But nowadays this cheese is produced in several other locations in Lombardy with the same good success, although the one that is made in the surroundings of Gorgonzola maintains higher commercial regard.”(2)

Since 1970, the production of Gorgonzola is regulated by its Consortium, and it’s limited to specific areas of Lombardy and Piedmont, as stipulated by its designation of Protected Geographical Status.

Uses

Gorgonzola and mascarpone "cake".
Gorgonzola and mascarpone “cake”.

Gorgonzola is commonly eaten by itself, usually spread on bread. The aged variety (Piccante) is sometimes paired with honey to counterbalance its intense body. For those who prefer more delicate flavors, a modern preparation exists that is even milder than Gorgonzola Dolce: a “cake” made by layering sweet Gorgonzola with mascarpone.

Gorgonzola is also widely used in cooking. The main examples see it used:

  • as a sauce for pasta or gnocchi, sometimes with the addition of walnuts;
  • in risotto, simply added when the rice is nearly cooked;
  • on pizza, alone or as one of the 4 kinds of cheese in quattro formaggi;
  • with polenta, especially baked in layers.
Gorgonzola Piccante with chestnut honey.
Gorgonzola Piccante with chestnut honey.
Pasta with Gorgonzola.
Pasta with Gorgonzola.

The wine pairings of Gorgonzola are somewhat difficult and a source of lengthy debates. There seems to be consensus, however, that the Dolce variety goes with fruity wines (Riesling, Pinot bianco, various novelli). The Piccante variety, instead, needs a stronger, sweeter wine, even fortified: various kinds of passito, as well as Port and Marsala. All agree that Gorgonzola goes well with beer, especially the Trappist kind.

Notes

1) Stracchino is a fat cheese whose name derives from the word “stracco” (“tired” in Milanese dialect), in reference to the fact that it was made with the milk of cows that were “tired” because of having just returned to the valley after spending the summer on higher pastures.
2) Luigi Cattaneo, On the way to produce the fat cheese called Stracchino of Gorgonzola, Il Politecnico 3 (1840), p. 309-322.

Addendum – Bloggers Recipes (from comments)

Thanks to my friend bloggers who accepted my invitation to share their best Gorgonzola recipes! Here is a clickable list compiled from their comments. Enjoy!

Simona (Briciole)

Roz (La Bella Vita)

Manu (Manu’s Menu)

Frank Fariello (Memorie di Angelina)

Pola (An Italian Cooking in the Midwest)

And my own:

25 thoughts on “Gorgonzola – The Italian Blue”

  1. Gorgonzola is one of the best cheeses around. Utilised by very few outside of Italy, it's such a pity! I love it with crackers; the way cheese is eaten in England, port goes very well with the more mature kind. A lovely gavi with the less mature to bring out the flavour.

  2. If I read a recipe with gorgonzola as an ingredient, I hop right onto it, knowing how delicious it (gorgonzola) is. I'm happy to share the following recipes that I've prepared using gorgonzola:

    Gorgonzola-Stuffed Figs Drizzled with Honey: http://www.italianbellavita.com/2010/10/gorgonzola-stuffed-fresh-figs-with.html

    Fresh Fig, Arugula and Gorgonzola Salad with Balsamico Vinaigrette: http://www.italianbellavita.com/2012/09/fresh-fig-and-arugula-salad-with.html

    and finally:

    Burgers with Gorgonzola, Basil and Smoky Bacon: http://www.italianbellavita.com/2012/09/burgers-with-bacon-basil-and-gorgonzola.html

    (many of my readers enjoy Italian recipes with an American twist . . . such as these burgers with gorgonzola)

    Keep on posting your great recipes and all of the information and education!

    Roz

  3. Ohhhhhh now I'm in trouble… after seeing all these pictures I feel like some gorgonzola and I have none in my fridge! Besides, you made me feel homesick… I was born in Milan and I was raised just a few kms from Gorgonzola! 😉 It is my all time favourite cheese (followed by Taleggio, another great cheese from our area) and I have quite a few recipes that use gorgonzola in my blog:

    Gorgonzola Souffle http://www.manusmenu.com/gorgonzola-souffle
    Potato Gnocchi with Gorgonzola http://www.manusmenu.com/potato-gnocchi-with-gorgonzola
    Radicchio and Gorgonzola Risotto http://www.manusmenu.com/radicchio-and-gorgonzola-risotto
    Pear and Gorgonzola Risotto http://www.manusmenu.com/pear-and-gorgonzola-risotto
    Grogonzola and Mascarpone filled Dates http://www.manusmenu.com/gorgonzola-and-mascarpone-filled-dates
    Gorgonzola filled Potato Gnocchi with Butter and Sage http://www.manusmenu.com/gorgonzola-filled-potato-gnocchi-with-butter-and-sage
    Baked Pork Scaloppine with Gorgonzola http://www.manusmenu.com/baked-pork-scaloppine-with-gorgonzola
    Polenta Concia http://www.manusmenu.com/polenta-concia
    Stuffed Crespelle http://www.manusmenu.com/stuffed-crespelle

    Told you, I had a FEW! hehehehe
    Great article BTW! 🙂

    1. Thanks Manu! What a wonderful collection 🙂 I'm especially happy that you included your Polenta Concia – a very traditional use of gorgonzola.

      Since links in comments are not active, I'm going to collect all of these amazing recipes and add an appendix to the article – they will be a great addition!

  4. I love, love, love gorgonzola and am lucky to live close enough to it to be able to hop over to a local dairy and pick it up fresh if I want to. In general however, especially in the winter, I always have a slice of gorgonzola lying in my fridge that I buy at the supermarket. I especially love gorgonzola dolce, I can eat it by the forkful. I love it simply spread on bread but also cannot resist it on pasta, with polenta or even on pizza. Thank you for all the interesting information: now I know why the mold forms in lines and why there are holes in the crust. I also didn't know gorgonzola originated from stracchino! I just realized by the way that I have never posted a recipe with gorgonzola… how is that possible? Believe it or not a gorgonzola dish was in my plans for the week end, so now I must remember to photograph and post it.

    1. Thanks so much Frank! Yours is a great article, BTW, as usual. Here in Canada too it's much more easy to find gorgonzola piccante than dolce. And even when it's sold as 'dolce' it ends up being quite dry, maybe because of unintentional in-store aging… I also agree with you that the combination of gorgonzola and saffron would be quite bizarre 🙂

  5. I'm afraid I'm in the minority. I loathe gorgonzola. I am one of those who long ago decided I didn't like blue cheese and when in Venice recently, I ordered cheese gnocchi without realising that gorgonzola was an ingredient. I took a mouthful, spat it out, and enquired what was in it. The waiter was shocked that I didn't like it, but truly, it is a quite revolting taste to me – probably was gorgonzola piccante.

    I've often wondered if maybe I'd like dolcelatte, but I am seriously allergic to medicinal penicillin. Is it dangerous for me to try the blue cheeses, or is this an entirely different strain of penicillin?

    1. Sorry about your experience – I can see that if you don't like blue cheese, a mouthful of gorgonzola gnocchi can be revolting.

      I have never heard that the allergy to medical penicillin extends to blue cheeses, but I will do more research to confirm. Thanks for the question!

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