Fontina is a cheese with an ancient past. Its peculiar characteristics are even mentioned in the 1477 edition of Summa Lacticinorum, written by Panteleone di Confienza, a doctor from Vercelli.
The word Fontina can be traced back to the beginning of the 1700s when it appeared in some documents relating to monastery shopping lists and expenses. Some sources suggest the word derives from an alpine cheese called Fontin, while others link the cheese with the village of Fontinaz. If we exclude the possibility that the cheese was named after a place, it is possible that the word Fontina comes from the ancient French term “fontis” or “fondis,” referring to the special ability of this cheese to melt when heated.
Fundamentally, Fontina is an alpine cheese made with milk of sub-species of cows from the Valle D’Aosta; the Italian Pezzata Rossa and the Pezzata Nera cows. The animals live in pastures during the summer months, when they produce the best milk of the year. During the winter, the cows are kept in stalls and feed on hay. Great care is given to cultivating the pastures in order to produce the rich milk that needed to make Fontina.
Like other alpine cheeses, Fontina was once produced only in small amounts in specific areas. Until 1800, the cheese was produced by communities of cheesemakers that often shared the pastures and the milk. This allowed cheesemakers to continue working even if they didn’t have enough animals or land.
Due to the geography of the region, Fontina was not well known outside of the Aosta Valley until new methods of communication allowed for the cheese to make a name for itself throughout Italy and Europe.
Fontina is made with whole milk from a single milking, which is filtered and then heated to 97° F, and mixed with liquid animal rennet. After about 40 minutes, the milk begins to coagulate and the curd is broken until it is the size of small corn kernels. It is then heated to between 117°-120°F. The mass is left to rest and then a cloth is used to remove the cheese and it is placed in molds and pressed to remove the remaining whey. The wheels are turned from time to time and the wet cloths are replaced with dry ones.
Then the cheese is salted, in both dry conditions and in a bath of water and salt. The wheels are then stored on Norway spruce wood shelves, in an aging room with 95% humidity and about 54° F. These aging rooms are often caves cut out from the rock.
Every other day, the wheels are cleaned with brushes dampened with salty water and covered with dry salt. After three months of aging, the wheels should be about 4 in high, 14-18 in wide and weight anywhere between 17-20 lbs, and contain about 45% fat. The rind should be smooth, solid, thin, semi-hard and light or dark brown, depending on its age.
The paste of the cheese should be an ivory to straw yellow color. It should be elastic and soft with a few small, thin holes. The flavor tends towards sweet and intensifies with aging.
Fontina has long been used in the kitchen to prepare traditional mountain fare, including polenta, gnocchi. It is also the main ingredient in the famous fonduta. It is also eaten enjoyed as part of a cheese plate.