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Up a Mountain,
Chasing a Cheese

by Marian Burros

UDINE, Italy — It is a simple dish for a complicated part of the world. Frico, they call it: cheese melted in a pan, then allowed to cool into a sheet that cracks into shards under a finger's pressure. Served as the farmers eat it, with potatoes, onions, a bit of smoky bacon, it is called frico del fattore, and it rates as one of the great regional delicacies of a nation that is filled with them. To find it — and the Montasio cheese with which it is made — I set out one warm, cloudless morning to drive from the high plains of this central city in Italy's northeastern corner up into the Dolomites, to the tiny village of Sauris di Sotto.

This is Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a mountainous region set atop the Adriatic Sea in the manner of a bauble at the end of a rod. Bordered by the swampy Veneto to the west, mountainous Austria to the north and the rough turf of Slovenia to the east, it has been a land of passage and invasion for thousands of years. Friuli, in fact, was part of Austria until 1866, as was Venezia Giulia until after World War I.

The Friulians have taken something from all those who have trespassed against them, Celts, Hungarians, Venetians, Hapsburgs, Yugoslavians, Charlemagne, Napoleon and even Attila the Hun. There are several languages here, styles of architecture, types of cuisine. Flavors seldom seen elsewhere in Italy thrive: chocolate, cumin, dill and cinnamon. Its prosciutto is superb, and its wines. But its cheese, Montasio, is nonpareil — nutty, rich and, with 40 percent fat, ideal for melting. Available in America mostly in its semi-aged state ("semistagionato" is the Italian term), it is sold all over this region at various stages of development, from fresco, or young and soft, to stagionato, aged more than 10 months, with the dry and crumbly texture of Parmigiano. In Sauris, I had been told, the frico would be prepared to perfection.

As we drove out of Udine, in the heart of the Friuli plain, past acres and acres of corn that will be this fall's polenta, the Dolomites abruptly appeared, like sheets of rock. We began our climb — straight up, it often seemed.

Montasio has been made in this region since the 13th century, when monks of the abbey at Moggio Udinese developed it, originally with sheep's milk, later with cow's, and gave it the name of the plateau on which their abbey stood. A decree from 1473 confirms the right of the Comune Cavazzo "in accordance with ancient custom" to graze livestock on the high plateau "in exchange for cheese as compensation to the landowners."

A taste for Montasio spread down through the valleys to the plains of Friuli and the Veneto to the west. By 1775, it was available in San Daniele, where it was paired with the best known of all Friulian products, San Daniele prosciutto — sweeter than Parma's and, as it happens, aged Montasio's true soul mate.

The cheese is now protected by a consortium of makers who insist on local milk and standardized timetables for aging it; in 1986, the cheese was awarded recognition by the Denominazione di Origine Controllata, a governing body for Italian food and wine. This has had both good and bad results. Good because the designation protects how a cheese is made and where it comes from. Bad because the organization insists on a uniformity that is beyond the grasp of some smaller cheese makers, making it impossible for them to sell their marvelous cheeses under the Montasio label. Uniformity is not always a good thing.

There was, before Sauris, a planned detour to a farm near Tolmezzo, to watch a wizened old farmer make cheese from the milk of his own cows and sheep. A four-wheel-drive vehicle was the only way to negotiate the mountain, with its switchbacks and hairpin turns through tunnels carved out of rock. When the paved road ran out, there was a track, and at the end of that track a dilapidated hut with a ceiling black from the smoke of generations of cheese makers. The farmer was stirring a copper pot over a wood fire. A few cheeses and some smoked pork ribs were hanging from the rafters above him. Not so long ago, this is how all cheese was made in Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

The cheese maker dipped his hand into the pot to see if a curd had formed in the hot milk. No. A few minutes later he tested it again, pulling out curds and shaping them into a round of fresh cheese. Finished, he silently took out a knife and cut several pieces for me to taste: creamy, warm cheese, smelling, it seemed, of the fields outside his walls. Then he reached for a piece of cheese he was aging, a hard ricotta, and cut into it as well. The flavor, darker, more smoky, was equally tantalizing.

The farmer said he had been making cheese every day for 30 years. He never has to go to town to sell it. Customers find him.

"It's the fashion these days to search out these remote places for the food," said Wayne Young, an American who works for the Bastianich vineyard in Friuli. The fashion, yes, but none of the product can get very far.

I said thank you and goodbye with a lot of smiles and bowing. The past was very present there in that farmer's shack in Tolmezzo, and fragile, too.

Up another steep hill, we came to Sauris, a picture-perfect little ski village hard against the snowcapped mountains. With its wood-timbered houses rising off clean-swept streets, not an inch of the town would be out of place in the Austrian or Swiss Alps.

At Restaurant Kursaal, where the chef, Daniele Cortiula, was waiting, there was little to dispel the Alpine mood. In front of him were onions, potatoes, cubes of Montasio and chopped speck — the flavorful smoked bacon that is one of the region's most valuable treasures.

First, Mr. Cortiula prepared the celebrated frico, which is nothing more than melted Montasio, which crisps as it cools. He served it with a peppery salami of donkey (better than one would think), soft polenta and a stew of young horse (much better than one would think, with hardly a whiff of gaminess). Young Montasio, he said, is usually paired with delicate white polenta; aged Montasio is served with yellow polenta, which has a stronger corn flavor. (Fred Plotkin, who has written the definitive book on the food and wine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, "La Terra Fortunata," published by Broadway Books in 2001, pairs frico with pears, apples or sweet onions.

The chef produced a small skillet, in which he cooked first the speck, then the potatoes and onion. When these were ready, he slowly added cubes of Montasio. And then with a flick of a very practiced wrist, he turned these homely ingredients into a perfect frico del fattore. Around the solids the cheese formed a crust the color of a Vermeer sunset — perfectly gold.

The flavor was addictive: a nutty, flavorful mass. Abandoning Parmigiano-Reggiano forever was not beyond the realm of possibility.

Frico Del Fattore
1/2 cup finely diced speck or pancetta (smoked bacon)
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1 pound potato, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 pound (scant) fresh Montasio, cut in 1/4-inch cubes

1. Sauté bacon in a medium-size nonstick pan over medium heat until it gives up some of its fat. Add onion, and cook until onion begins to color.
2. Add potato, and stir well to coat. Add 3/8 cup water; reduce heat to low; cover, and cook, stirring once, about 15 minutes, until potatoes are soft and water has evaporated. Mixture should be fairly dry.
3. Add cheese, several pieces at a time, and stir continuously, adding more cheese as it melts. When cheese is almost completely melted, turn mixture into an 8-inch nonstick pan (nonstick surface should be perfect, or cheese will stick), and cook over low heat to brown bottom. As fat from cheese accumulates, spoon it off.
4. When bottom is browned, carefully flip onto plate, and then return frico to pan to brown the other side, about 20 minutes total. Remove, and cool slightly; cut into small wedges and serve warm or at room temperature.

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