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The Magic of Mold

Posted By Siobhan Phillips On May 10, 2009 @ 10:52 am In Pro Vercelli | 2 Comments

Can we talk about mold as we reflect on the next Pro Vercelli celebratory meal? The team is firmly established in Serie A now; it can’t avoid the tough topics. We’re less the up-and-comer thrilled to have won than the established professional expected to keep winning. We’re managing the creeping sine curve of a consistent career rather than enjoying the bright dot of an exceptional case. We have to consider the aims of maintenance and preservation.

Which makes it a good time to think about mold, perhaps. Though today’s markets and groceries trumpet “freshness” as loudly as fonts allow, most of human food history charts steady work toward the opposite goal: toward an extension of palatability for as long as possible. The effort is a matter of survival, of course. But it is also a matter of style; it lets us reasonable animals store our nutrition while permitting us to plan our pleasures. We can indulge the yen for variety and surprise as we assuage the need for security and insurance. We can savor a paradox, too—the fact that what seems like decay may instead mean enrichment. Drowning some foods in life-killing brine makes them capable of being ingested, for example; boiling others to life-killing temperatures deepens their tang; letting others irrevocably deteriorate is a revelation in taste. Desiccation and rot are at times delicious. While none of us would want to be cooked, pickled, dried up, canned, or soured, many of us like to eat rhubarb or olives or raisins or gherkins or jam. Not to mention wine.

Cheese is the acme of this bad-into-good-to-eat backwardness, since it turns the quintessence of freshness that is new milk into a food that depends for its appeal on spoilage. Cheese can get better the more decrepit it is. In cheese-making, the fuzz of decomposition on a curdled leftover signals the beginning of a subtle, sophisticated flavor. Blues press the contradiction, advancing the cuisine of decay to its logical dream: whereas most cheese molds from the outside in, the spores of penicillium—the particular fungus that marbles into a gorgeous beryl-green ore of veiny flavor—reproduce from the inside out. The very heart of the food must putrefy in order to become the delicacy that is Stilton or Roquefort or Gorgonzola. It seems no wonder, then, that such cheeses are prized above all others in their national cuisines—that Stilton is crowned king just as surely as Roquefort is roi and Gorgonzola re. The pleasure they offer consolidates the triumph of culinary perversity.

I won’t press the question of whether this inside-out metaphor has any application in the realm of team sports—in the realm of football, even—where a squad’s development could seem like corrosion as easily as maturity, and where managers and fans must sometimes decide which of the two they witness. But I will conclude with a reminder that Italian law makes Vercelli one of the few regions in the country and thus the world permitted to produce true Gorgonzola cheese. The area has done so since Medieval times, when cattle heading south for the winter rested in small towns of Piedmont. Because the resulting oversupply of milk came from weary cattle, the cheese was originally called stracchino di Gorgonzola. The makers of this “tired” cheese, though, knew to be patient with its very exhaustion; fatigue, they found, can press all the way into something new. Something we’d even call fresh. Mold has its own, slow-blooming magic.

Polenta With Gorgonzola

adapted from The Silver Spoon

makes two servings

1 ¼ cups polenta

2 ½ cups water

pinch of salt

3 tablespoons butter, cut into 4 pieces

3 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, cut into four thin slices

1.) Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a small saucepan, bring the water and salt to a boil over high heat. While stirring, add the polenta in a steady stream. Keep stirring, lower the heat to medium or low, and stir until the mixture is fairly thick and leaves the sides of the pan. This should take 10 minutes or less.

2.) Spread the polenta in an ovenproof dish. Make four slight indentations; put a pat of butter and a slice of gorgonzola in each. Bake until the butter and gorgonzola have completely melted, about five minutes. Divide the polenta into two dishes and serve hot.


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