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Local cheesemaker Alessandra Trompeo injects Italian culture into her work

From Turin to the Triangle

3 SEP 2008  •  by Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell, Sheryl Cornett

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It takes an artisanal cheesemaker to fully appreciate the honor of having a Jersey cow named after you.

Durham's Alessandra Trompeo understands that Jersey cows provide a milk rich in butterfat—the perfect base for the cheeses she crafts as the founder of La Casa dei Formaggi ("house of cheeses" in her native Italian).

So when Trompeo, 40, says that the owners of Chapel Hill Creamery, Flo Hawley and Portia McKnight, christened the first heifer of the spring Alessandra, her eyes gleam with humor and pride.

Chapel Hill Creamery bovines like Alessandra supply the creamy foundation for Casa dei Formaggi's raw milk cheeses, made from nonpasteurized milk and aged for at least 60 days.

Among the cheeses Trompeo regularly makes are il Duca, made in the style of Toma, an Italian semi-hard cow's milk cheese; and the Duchessa, similar to a Raschera, another soft cow cheese with complex salty and "green" notes. She also makes a Gorgonzola-like blue cheese and a Casera cheese.

Haven't heard of these cheeses? Liken them to the often high-quality house wines of European restaurants. They may not be made for the export market or what the average U.S. consumer thinks of as the typical Italian cheese—Parmesan, mozzarella or ricotta— but they are beloved by many Italians like Trompeo, who was born in Turin, Piedmont.

"Where I come from," she says, "every valley has its own cheese," hence the many varieties of Toma named after their places of origin: the well-known Toma de Piedmontese or the Toma della Vallpellice, indigenous to Trompeo's childhood stomping grounds.

Trompeo makes cheeses that showcase her Italian roots, skills and the local environment, said Seth Gross of Wine Authorities.

The store sells Duchessa (Trompeo also sells at the Saturday Hillsborough Farmers' Market in the SunTrust Bank parking lot on Churton Street), but even cheeseheads like Gross and Wine Authorities co-owner Craig Heffley hadn't heard of the types of cheeses Trompeo makes. Once they tried the first sample, they committed to offering this cheese in their shop.

"It was distinct, it tasted European. [Duchessa] has that earthy grassiness to it. ... I loved the savory salinity of it. The cheeses reflect where they come from," said Gross.

The Duchessa is like its maker, at once local and international. While Trompeo's knowledge and some of the bacterial cultures that impart flavor to the cheeses come from Italy, the raw materials are all Triangle or North Carolina. The milk is local, and Trompeo is working on a new cheese aged in grape leaves from Grove Winery, near Greensboro. She sometimes gives the nitrogen-rich whey, a byproduct of the cheesemaking process but a potential pollutant, to an area pig farmer for feed.

Trained as a geologist, Trompeo changed careers when, upon returning to Italy after years working abroad, she discovered that landing a similar position in her home country was no longer easy.

Instead, she enrolled in a one-year cheesemaking program where she learned to make fresh cheeses with mellifluous Italian names: Robiola, a cheese made with cow, goat and sheep milk; Paglierina, a sheep's cheese aged in straw; and Tomino, rindless cheeses ideal for spreading.

Trompeo's cheeses are made in her home off Ridge Road, where she and her husband transformed a 400-square-foot, two-car garage into a commercial kitchen and a chamber for aging the cheese. On one summer day, the cheese "cave" is a chilly 52 degrees, with strictly regulated humidity, and the stacks of cheese wheels exude an almost yeasty aroma, seemingly waiting until Trompeo declares them mature and mouth-ready.

Knowing how to make the cheese and when it's "done" is a fine dance between precise science and a precise palate. "To make cheese, you need to know a little microbiology, chemistry, things about the climate," said Trompeo. A change in the feeding habits of the cows—say, hay instead of grass during this summer's drought—will effect subtle but noticeable changes in the cheese, including a very white color.

"If [cheesemaking] were easy, everybody would be doing it," added McKnight of Chapel Hill Creamery. "Cheesemaking requires a fair amount of technical knowledge and expertise. On the way to making good cheese, you make a fair amount of bad cheese."

The incentive to make that good cheese is a burgeoning local and regional cheese culture. Just seven years ago, McKnight and Hawley had to start their own dairy to find "clean" milk from grass-fed cows. Today, she said, the community of North Carolina cheesemakers is growing, but there's room enough for more. "It's like a gas station or a drugstore. You put one on a corner, and there's a market for it."

For Trompeo the entrepreneur, starting her cheese business translates into strong arms and long workdays. It's Trompeo who, except for some friends and a neighborhood teen, does all the work on Tuesdays, her weekly cheesemaking day.

She rises early to pick up the still-warm milk from the dairy's morning milking. She lugs the three-and-a-half-gallon buckets into her former garage; pours the milk into a mixer large enough to give several small children a spin; adds bacteria cultures and rennet enzyme that flavor and thicken the milk, respectively; and heats the whole mass. Eventually, she has a thick curd that will become cheese after aging for as much as a year.

Such care has paid off for Trompeo, whose il Duca was evaluated at the American Raw Milk Cheese Presidium in June at New York's Artisanal Cheese Center. As a selected cheese, il Duca will be showcased at Slow Food events around the world.

In October, Trompeo will serve il Duca at the Terra Madre Slow Food exposition in her birthplace of Turin, bringing her cheese from the North Carolina Piedmont back to its ancestral home, the Italian Piedmont. —Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell

Meet the cheesemaker: Alessandra Trompeo will offer samples of La Casa dei Formaggi cheese at the "first birthday party" for Wine Authorities, 2501 University Drive, Sept. 10 from 5-7 p.m. She will also present her cheese Sept. 20 at the Hillsborough Wine Company, 118 S. Churton St. Call the store for more information at 732-4343.

Mmmmm, sauce...

September: Not quite the end of summer, but we can expect breathers from high heat indexes. We've welcomed rain. School has started. Fall schedules are ramping up and we're all in need of quick-fix meals, something locavores are searching out in new ways. The luxury of summer produce still fills the markets to make this task a pleasure.

Pasta is one go-to dish that manages to please nearly everybody. But what to put on it? You can always toss it with local butter and cheese, or create a primavera with whatever is in the farmers' markets: summer or winter squash, onions, peppers, eggplant, okra. Basil will be with us until the first frost and is always delicious, pureed into pesto or washed, dried, snipped into thin ribbons and stirred into the dish at serving time.

Thankfully, there are still many varieties of tomatoes at our growers' stands, even though the drought has left its mark and they aren't as plentiful as they might be. The following uncooked tomato sauce can be made a variety of ways, with or without the tomato skins on, with any shape pasta, and with a variety of cheeses. The astonishingly fresh tart-sweet tomato taste contrasts well with the creaminess of room temperature pasta and grated, but not melted, cheese to a satisfying finish. It's surprising how the simple ingredients add up to more than the sum of their parts—a bright burst of flavors that sing Indian Summer.

You can put this sauce together in the time it takes the water to boil for your preferred pasta. But you'll want to do it ahead of time to let the raw tomatoes juice up and blend with the oil, herbs and garlic. Add a loaf of crusty bread, a side of braised fall greens and a spunky, chilled table wine and you have a dinner that's more than a quick fix.

I've come across variations on this sauce everywhere. There are versions in fancy cookbooks, in gardening books, on the backs of pasta boxes, even in Marcella Cucina. Some recipes specify San Marzano plum type tomatoes, others simply say very, very fresh and ripe tomatoes of any kind—even cherry tomatoes work. The ratios are consistent: 2 pounds of vine ripe tomatoes to 1/2 cup olive oil for every pound of pasta and half pound of cheese.

Below is a version quick enough to be an after-work option. In one batch I made this week, I used 8 ounces of cold Paesano, grated at the table, into the room temperature pasta-tomato combination. In another test batch, I cubed fresh mozzarella in place of the Paesano. You can use herbs other than basil, or a combination, and add olives, scallions, anchovies or whatever you like. But we loved the simple richness of the few straightforward flavors here. —Sheryl Cornett

No-Cook Tomato Sauce for "Pasta del Paesano"

(Adapted from Alessandra Trompeo)

2 pounds very ripe tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered
1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 pound favorite pasta, angel hair or bowties work well
1/2 pound rich firm cheese such as Paesano or mozzarella, well chilled

Peel tomatoes by dropping in boiling water for 60-90 seconds max. Remove with a slotted spoon and allow to rest on a plate until cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, peel and slice garlic, chop basil and mix these into a large bowl with the oil. Set aside. Slip tomato skins off with the tip of a paring knife and coarsely dice tomatoes. Add them and their juices to the big bowl with the other ingredients. Let this mixture marinate for at least an hour at room temperature, up to three hours unrefrigerated.

When ready to eat, boil pasta al dente according to package directions. Drain and allow to cool a few minutes before stirring into sauce. Let stand another few minutes before grating or cutting cheese into pasta and sauce. Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a first course.

Other options

Tomato lovers know that the late summer fruit can often be the most flavorful of the season. Pairing them with the increasing diversity of local cheeses offers locavore options for fast food at home.

  • Thinly slice fresh mozzarella or other melting cheese and Roma tomatoes onto whole wheat pita bread, sprinkle with herbs, drizzle with olive oil and run under broiler for quick pizza.

  • Cube cheese of choice (usually mozzarella) and toss with an equal part chopped tomatoes plus a handful of chopped basil (or to taste), and a drizzle of olive oil for caprese—a starter salad that's the taste of Italy.

  • In the final stages of cooking any flavor frittata, top with grated cheese and slivers of tomato before running under the broiler. You'll get a slightly roasted tomato flavor.
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