In the verdant valley of Bitto, in Valtellina, it is produced a tasteful mountain cheese, perfect both young and seasoned. We talk about Bitto, PDO cheese from 1996 and Slow Food Presidium since 2003. Bitto cheese production is limited to some districts and pastures in the Bitto Valley, in Lombardia, by a severe regulation, in order to preserve the original features of cheese.
A small group of manufacturers, in order to preserve the traditional rules, also created an exclusive consortium, Consorzio Salvaguardia Bitto Storico, which protects ingredients and original methods handed down from one generation to another. This is what really distinguish the PDO Bitto from the Historic Bitto, which keeps unchanged the connection with the old local customs.
History and curiosities
The term “bitto” derives from the Celtic “bitu”, which means “everlasting”: it is not a case, in fact, that the seasoning process of this cheese can last even for 10-15 years.
The first historic evidences about the production of this cheese date back to 1600s, inside the “Catalogue” by Ortensio Lando. At this link we can find an interesting document about the story of Bitto, with the most important documents and evidences about the production of this tasteful cheese.
Production and Regulation
Bitto cheese is a Protected Designation of Origin product since 1st July 1996, and the Regulation restricts the production only for the pastures of the Bitto Valley, in the provinces of Sondrio, Bergamo and Lecco.
All the wheels of Bitto are made with cow’s milk from the Alpine-brown breed, at 1400-2400 meters high. The Regulation allows using a small amount of goat’s milk (10-20%) in order to make cheese more intense and tasteful. Manufacturers of the Consortium use only milk from goats Orobica or from Valgerola.
The production period of Bitto starts in June and lasts until half/end of September, high altitude pastures inside mountain huts and “calèc”, typical structures of those lands. “Calècs” are rudimental stone built rooms, used to lodge animals at night, and in which there are some copper cauldron to prepare cheese.
The Consorzio Salvaguardia Bitto Storico controls that cows’ food is natural, with mountain herbs. The Regulation, instead, allows the use of barley, corn, wheat and other cereals, not exceed 3%.
Once created the wheel of Bitto, it is transported in the “casere”, some stone built locals set in the grazing lands. Here takes place the dry salting process for 15-20 days and in an average of every 2 or 3 days. The following step is the transferring of wheels in humid rooms (80-90% humidity) at a temperature of 15°C. Then it occurs the seasoning, whose duration goes on 2-6 months for table Bitto, 1-2 years for long-seasoned Bitto, perfect to grate.
At the end of the seasoning, a wheel of Bitto may weigh even 25 kg.
Bitto DOP seasoned 6 months has the 28,5% in proteins, 28% in fat, a total of 375 calories, so it is less fat than other cheeses, as Belpaese or Emmenthal, and a little bit less caloric than Parmigiano Reggiano.
Taste and characteristics
Young Bitto has a soft texture with small holes and white small spots, yellow and thin rind and a delicate and gentle scent. The color of the internal part, if it is low seasoned, is milk white or yellowish, while the taste is sweet and delicate. After 1 year of maturation, the texture becomes more hard and crumbly, the color becomes straw yellow, the taste strong and slightly spicy. After 2 years, the scent is more accentuated and the internal, hard part is ideal to be grated in flakes.
The inimitable taste of Bitto has no equals in Valtellina and in the rest of Italy, and has some affinities with other cheeses, as Casera or Fontina, despite its taste is unmistakable. The cost varies depending on the seasoning.
After buying it, you should conserve it in the fridge, wrapped into a tinfoil or a cloth.
A tasteful cheese as Bitto knows interesting combinations with local precious wines, especially red and full-bodied. Particularly suggested are wines from Valtellina, as Valtellina Superiore Sassella and Valtellina Superiore Inferno, but also Nebbiolo d’Alba, Roccapesta Morellino, Nero d’Avola or Aglianico del Vulture.
In cooking, Bitto is used as a table cheese, and also with some recipes, thanks to the fact that it easily melts and amalgamates with other ingredients. In Valtellina Bitto is used to realize some typical dishes, as “pizzoccheri”, “sciatt” (little pancakes made with some grappa and filled with cheese) and “polenta taragna”, a delicious variety of polenta made with buckwheat. It is important to add Bitto to polenta only at the end of cooking, cutting it in cubes and blending until cheese is partially melt. Try it also to cook risotto until creamy, with some dried fruit (perfect the walnuts) or with some rye bread. You can taste it with blueberry jam or chestnut honey.
In order to give a precious touch to our dishes, we can use some seasoned Bitto in flakes or grated.
In Val del Bitto it is easy to find promotional events dedicated to this delicious cheese. It is the case, for example, of Bitto Show, a two days event usually organized for the end of October. In Gerola Alta, instead, there is in September the Bitto Festival, dedicated to the degustation of this PDO cheese.