Provolone del monaco: prince of the table
Provolone del monaco, made solely in the Monti Lattari (aptly named by early inhabitants, as the Italian name derives from ‘lactis’, the Latin for milk), is perhaps the most characteristic and acclaimed of all the food products that hail from the Sorrento Peninsula. It’s a hard cheese, melon-shaped but without the classic ‘head’ that caciocavallo cheese has, with a rind that’s pale yellow tending to brownish, which according to some, together with the rope that it’s hung from, suggests a monk’s habit (‘monaco’ is the Italian for monk). But the most accepted explanation of this bizarre name is that the men who began to arrive in Naples in 700 AD to sell the product disembarked from the boats that had brought them to the capital in brown cloth coats, which made them look like monks. Whatever the origin of the name, the cheese is one of the most valued dairy products made in Campania, a DOP (protected designation of origin) product made only with milk from cows allowed to graze freely on the scented pastures of the Monti Lattari. It’s truly an absolute delight to taste if you’ve been there. The bovine breed that produces the (little) milk that is worked to produce the base for this cheese is called ‘Agerolese’, from the town of Agerola, at the centre of the Monti Lattari where the borders of the province of Naples meet those of Salerno. So it’s an indigenous breed, born from the intersection of other breeds, and now able, raised on the hills overlooking the sea, to give us not only the goodness of provolone but also ‘fiordilatte’ (mozzarella made from cows’ milk) and provola (a smaller version of provolone) – magnificent when smoked – that brighten the palate of every gourmet. The taste of provolone is sweet and buttery, with a spicy base note that is accentuated in more mature varieties.
The wine pairing for this cheese depends on its maturity; if it’s 6 months, the ideal match would be a local wine, light and fragrant, a nice Gragnano. If you are considering a cheese matured for more than 12 months, and therefore with a more complex taste, it’s necessary to have a wine with greater character – an Irpinian Aglianico, ideally a Taurasi.
Provolone del monaco recipes
Provolone del monaco can be used in some of the Sorrento Peninsula and Campania’s best-loved recipes. One is ‘pasta e patate’ (pasta and potatoes), enriched with the cheese at the end of cooking to blend with the pasta and give it a distinctive flavour.
But the defining recipe made with this cheese is spaghetti ‘alla Nerano’, created in one of the most delicious parts of the Peninsula, namely Nerano. The ingredients are courgettes, which are fried in thin strips and plenty of oil, combined with grated cheese, the majority of which should be provolone del monaco. Fry the courgettes and cook the spaghetti (from Gragnano, obviously) while stirring the cheese with a splash of olive oil in which garlic has already been cooked. Then add the courgettes and plenty of basil and the dish is ready. The secret is to add the cheese little by little, first the provolone cut into strips, then the parmesan and pecorino too if you like, and to add a little of the cooking water. The risk is that the ingredients don’t mix together and are overpowered by the taste of oil, but if you are careful and use a good dose of provolone, the result will be excellent. This is one of a thousand possible variations – there are those who add butter and not parmesan, those who keep the provolone separate. Whatever the recipe, the result will be a high-quality dish. There are those who would pair it with a rosé, others with a white. But even the usual Gragnano, sparkling and slightly chilled, can be a good option.