A single cheesemaker, in just one cellar in Switzerland’s southernmost valley makes Zincarlin della Valle di Muggio. Also called mature Zincarlin, the heritage cheese ages under the cooling breath of Monte Generoso. The cheese is little known outside the Ticino region of Mendrisiotto. People here are eager to share Zincarlin with their visitors. They often watch, for a reaction to the first taste of this most local of cheeses.
The mature Zincarlin produced in the Muggio Valley has a complex flavor. Its long taste transforms in the eating. Its rind is soft, a mottled yellow-gold, and the paste soft and creamy, dotted with black pepper. The taste experience starts with an aroma something akin to Munster: bold, pungent, intense and “pasturey”. The first bite through rind carries the pepper. As the cheese melts in the mouth, it feels a bit sticky, and the flavor becomes milky. Just a hint of butter lingers.
Zincarlin is complex –delicate, deeply aromatic, robust
Mature Zincarlin is a local tradition in every way. You know you’ve eaten like a Mendrisiotto local if you have:
- drizzled a slice of the heritage cheese with chestnut honey from Ticino
- sampled it with fresh pears in autumn
- stirred a little block of the cheese into a steaming zucchini risotto.
I loved the cheese, both as a cultural artifact and as a taste sensation. When I had an opportunity to meet the woman who makes the cheese, and visit her production and storage cantina in tiny Solarino, I jumped at the chance.
Switzerland’s first Slow Food Presidium
A decade ago, production of aged Zincarlin had ground to a near halt. It was a victim of economic hard times for the valley’s farmers and faltering infrastructure for producers.
Today, artisanal producer Marialuce Valuntini carries on the methods established by her mother and codified through the concerted effort of several groups and the advocacy of the Slow Food movement. She described for us the efforts made to bring the cheese back into production and onto Swiss tables.
Zincarlin della Valle di Muggia was named Switzerland’s first Slow Food Presidium in 2004, assigned to the hamlet of Salorino as place of origin.
What is special about Zincarlin?
For a cheese fancier, aged Zincarlin is worth seeking out:
- The rare cheese–an uncommon food–was brought back from the brink of extinction
- It is complex—delicate, and at the same time, strongly aromatic and robust
- Production is traditional and necessarily limited
A Zincarlin heritage spans the Swiss-Italian border. However, the Swiss version is a cheese entirely different to the Cingherlin made in Lombardy. The Italian version, also called Zincarlin, is a fresh, very mild cheese made of goat and cow’s milk. Produced with cooked curds, it can be substituted with very mild Brie. You’d never want to do that with the mature Muggio version!
Producing a heritage cheese
Zincarlin from Muggio is made from raw cow milk, and with the sometime addition of goats milk. The cheesemaker kneads the curds into a paste without cooking, then adds salt and a (liberal) lashing of coarsely ground black pepper. She forms 400-gram bell-shaped blocks by hand, then stores the blocks in the Salorino cellar on wooden boards. The semi-underground cellar, built into the side of Mount Generoso, maintains a constant temperature of 12 degrees centigrade. The climate is ideal for storing wines, cured meats and cheeses, including Zincarlin.
Almost every day for two months, a bath in white wine keeps the cheese’s its rind soft. Aging and natural evaporation in the cellar, reduces the size of the cheese and wrinkles the edible rind, which takes on a reddish hue.
After aging for two months, the packaged cheese is packaged for limited sale in shops in Mendrisio and other Ticino communities. Cheese lovers can also special-order Zincarlin for shipment across Switzerland. Marialuce makes very small batches of Zincarlin della Valle di Maggio for longer aging, and decidedly local consumption.
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Mendrisiotto Tourism hosted our stay in the Valle di Muggio, and introduced us to cheesemaer Marialuce Valtulini. Our taste buds quickly succumbed to the pleasures of this fabulous cheese.