Camembert…in Italy?

Although probably 99 percent of Italy’s water-buffalo milk becomes fresh mozzarella, a few innovators are devising new uses for the rich latte di bufala. Surprisingly, some of these creative creameries are in Piedmont and Lombardy, in northern Italy, far from the mozzarella zone around Naples.

The luscious Camembert di Bufala from La Casera, near Lago Maggiore, exemplifies this trend. Made with pasteurized milk from Piedmontese water buffalo, this bloomy-rind disk defies local tradition. Camembert? in Italy? This region’s soft-ripened cheese is robiola, which varies from village to village but never has a Camembert-type rind.

La Casera is an affinatore, a firm that buys young cheeses from other producers and ages them. So the company doesn’t make Camembert di Bufala but manages its progress from infancy to maturity—or, as the company describes it, “from nursery school to college.” I like that.

La Casera excels at maturing robiola—you may have had one of their silky robiolas aged in chestnut, fig or cabbage leaves—but aging Camembert-style cheese requires a new learning curve. These little disks are finicky about humidity and temperature, and they suffer if not pampered in shipping. What’s more, water-buffalo milk is higher in fat than cow’s milk—twice as high in some cases—which would also affect how the cheese develops.

I’ve sampled Camembert di Bufala several times now, with similar experiences. As a wedge comes to room temperature, it slumps and eventually collapses, with the interior puddling like fondue. This is the rare cheese that I would recommend consuming cool, not at room temperature, to savor it before it becomes soup. I would also suggest purchasing and serving the whole wheel—about 9 ounces—to postpone the meltdown. At the cheese counter, if possible, probe the disk with a tissue before you commit. If the surface is heavily mottled and the cheese feels squishy, it could be past its peak.

But a perfectly ripe Camembert di Bufala is dreamy, with a pronounced scent of porcini and a pale, supple interior. The rind is edible, but cut it away if you find it too tough. The cheese marches up to the edge on salt, but bread helps to mute that impression. And with such a runny cheese, bread is a must.

Look for Camembert di Bufala at Cheese Plus, Little Vine and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco; Pasta Shop in Oakland and Berkeley and Cheese Board in Berkeley; Petaluma Market; Good Earth in Fairfax; Sacramento Natural Foods; Sunshine Foods in St. Helena; Oliver’s Markets in Santa Rosa; Cheese Shop of Healdsburg; Mollie Stone’s (multiple locations) and some Whole Foods. A rich white wine such as Chardonnay would complement it, as would a saison-style beer.

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