The history of Fontina is linked to the history of its name. The name Fontina is frequently mentioned in ancient documents on the Aosta Valley.
References to the “De Funtina” family can be found from the mid-13th century and “de Fontines” appears a hundred years later. There are abundant references to the use of Fontina as a place name for meadows, estates and villages.
The association of the name Fontina with the characteristic cheese appears gradually: first replacing “vacherinus”, then combined with “seras” and used unambiguously for the cheese starting from the 18th century.
For many centuries, Fontina was produced in Alpine pastures, where there was space for plenty of cows and therefore sufficient milk.
The families of the Aosta Valley only had between one and three cows, and it was only during the nineteenth century that communal dairies were established and the milk for cheese making was pooled in a cooperative spirit.
Fontina is therefore the offspring of high mountains pastures and has taken its name from noble dynasties and common place names in the Aosta Valley.
On the Issogne frescoes in the castles of the Aosta Valley, among the ladies, knights and warriors, a medieval cheese seller’s stall can be seen, with the typical forms of Fontina clearly recognisable.
Fontina is a PDO cheese produced in the Aosta Valley. The product has a characteristic flattened cylindrical form with straight sides, between 8 and 12 kg in weight and 43 cm in diameter.
The rind is compact and ranges from light to dark brown, depending on the aging conditions. It has a soft, elastic, semi-cooked paste, with characteristic holes dispersed throughout the form.
The colour varies from ivory to a pale yellow colour.
The characteristic, sweet and pleasant flavour varies in intensity depending on the aging.
Fontina Cheese has three distinguishing signs for product identification and marking: the marks of origin, the guarantee seal and the sale mark (tissue paper).
The real “producers” of Fontina are the local mountain pastures and the native cattle breeds, Pezzata Rossa, Pezzata Nera and Pezzata Castana, which play a vital role, thanks to their ability to thrive on the grass on the Alpine pastures and the hay from the natural meadows.
The relationship between the animals and the pastures is carefully managed and monitored by the person in charge of rotating the livestock around the various pastures, following a predetermined sequence and calendar.
The milk production from the Aosta Valley cattle varies during the year, with lower overall quantities than from other breeds, but higher quality. The cattle feed, mainly composed of Alpine grasses, also determines the nutritional content of the milk.
The processing, in accordance with the PDO production rules, does not alter the characteristics of the fresh milk. The milk is made into cheese within hours of milking, twice a day, at a temperature of 36°C, using calf rennet as a curdling agent.
The curd is then broken up into pieces the size of a grain of corn. The curd mixture is gradually heated to about 48°C, while stirring continually to encourage separation from the whey.
Heating is interrupted when the right temperature has been reached, and then the whey is completely removed while continuing to stir the curd mixture. Once this step, known as “spinatura”, is completed, the curds are left to settle for a few minutes and then the curd mixture is shaped into a form.
The curds are then placed in the typical bow-sided cheese hoops. The cheeses are then left under a press to assure the removal of any whey residues.
Pressing lasts for about 12 hours, during which the forms are turned over several times. Before the final turning, the producer’s consortium identification number is stamped on the form with a small number plate, which, together with the casein plate, ensures that the product is clearly traceable.
The first salting then follows, after which the forms are taken to the warehouses for aging. The average aging period last for at least 3 months, during which the surfaces of the forms are regularly brushed and dry-salted.
The forms are turned once each day during the first month, with brushing and salting on alternate days: these operations help the characteristic rind to develop. After this, these operations are then carried out at longer intervals, and the forms slowly age on spruce boards.
After aging, qualified technical personnel from the DOP Consortium of Protection examine the Fontina cheeses, under the supervision of the control body authorised by the ministry.
Only Fontina cheeses meeting the quality standards specified by the production rules are given the characteristic DOP marking.
The Local Area
The Fontina production area is the Aosta Valley, an autonomous region in the Western Alps, where dry summers and harsh winters mark the passage of time for the flora, fauna and inhabitants.
Only the combination of flowers, grasses and water in this land can give the cows’ milk that special fragrance, and only the air of the Aosta Valley allows Fontina to age properly.
About 200 Alpine meadows are used for the production process. These are livestock settlements located between 1,800 and 2,300 metres above sea level.
The pastures at these altitudes are rich in fragrant grazing that gives the milk a wide range of distinctive aromas.Despite being an animal origin product, Fontina from the Alpine meadows has a high amount of unsaturated fats and is rich in important nutrients. These molecules are synthesised directly by rumination, thanks to the fine, high mountain pasture diet.
Research has been carried out on Fontina as analytic techniques have developed, with chemical analyses initially and microbiological analyses more recently. The start of scientific research can be traced to 1887 with the entry on “Fontina Cheeses of Aosta” in the yearbook of the Lodi Cheese Factory Experimental Station.
The Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Forestry continued the research in the 1930s and ’40s through its own institutes.Local breeds were eliminated in the second half of the 1960s, and the dairy industry imposed new processing and marketing techniques.
However, traditional production was preserved and developed with the help of trademarks and recognition of typical authenticity. The Consortium marked 75,000 forms in its first year of activity and 150,000 ten years later, doubling this again by the end of the 1980s.
Today, Fontina cheese production techniques have achieved excellence, and the attention of researchers is focused on marketing: advertising, packaging and sales techniques (from TV advertisements to nutrition and dieting).
Curator — Consorzio Produttori e tutela della DOP Fontina