It’s December, Advent, the time to open one little door after another every morning, light another candle every week, the air sweet and heavy with cinnamon stars, Stollen cake and Hutzelbrot fruit bread. Strange to remember amidst all this Hygge, Gemütlichkeit und deliciousness that the four weeks before Christmas are actually fasting weeks. Stollen cake originally was an austere affair, to use butter for its making we up here in the far north needed exceptional permission from the Pope – today it’s heavy, often far too heavy and sweet, full of marzipan…
How do I get from Stollen to cheese? My cheese of the month similarly represents an act of renunciation: Pannerone Lodigiano is made without any salt. I know, salt was never the subject of religious restrictions, but making do without is a significant statement and experience, especially if you’re as salt addicted as I am. Every bite of this sweet-bitter-almondy soft cheese full of holes is a reminder of how central salt’s role is in our idea of cheese (beyond the fact that it is actually very important as an ingredient).
So, Pannerone Lodigiano, made from full-fat, untreated cow’s milk (panera is Lonbardian dialect for cream), created in medieval times by Benedictine monks and widely popular until the second world war, whereas today there are only two producers left. The milk is curdled using an exceptionally large quantity of calf rennet, the manually broken curd drains in bags before being broken and torn again, filled into large moulds (the finished cheese is 30cm in diameter, 20cm high and weighs around 12kg), ripening for four days at 28-30°C, before being wrapped in paper, put back into the wooden moulds and left for the final maturation of some weeks at 8-10°C. But the most important: it is not salted at all – that’s why it tastes almost bland, sweetish, perhaps also a touch almondy, and due to the high percentage of whey left in the unpressed curd also somewhat bitter. In any case: very odd and unfamiliar.
And now the complete swing back to pre-Christmassy indulgence: Pannerone is delicious with honey or even better Mostarda, the mustard-spicy-hot-sweet candied fruit from Cremona. Equally good with it, in a way, is this thought, which I came across when having a coffee recently, at some airport. Cheesio, you lovely folks, with or without salt, in these dark, strange times.