When I think of an old cheese, I typically think of an aged Parmigiano-Reggiano since it’s aged from 18, 24, or 36 months. But when I visited the Valtellina Valley in Lombardy, I was introduced to an even older cheese: Bitto Storico.
Bitto Storico can be aged up to 18 years – and no, that is NOT a typo. I did say 18 years. Ten year aged Bitto Storico is the oldest you’ll most likely find available for purchase in Valtellina. Though one of the oldest wheels ever sold was a 15 year old Bitto Storico that sold for about $6,400 in China.
There are only 12 producers of Bitto Storico, and they are all in one valley named after the Bitto River that runs through it. The milk used to make the Bitto Storico cheese is all from free range cows and goats; they aren’t allowed to be fed feed or anything unnatural. They spend the summer grazing on the mountain pastures, and depending on the year, what the cows were grazing on can change the flavor of the cheese from one wheel to the next.
Bitto Storico is made today the same way it has been for centuries. The cheese is made up of cows milk and between 10-20% Orobica goat’s milk. The Orobica goats are only found in the Bergamo Alps of Northern Italy. The higher the percentage of goats milk used when making the cheese, the longer the cheese is able to be aged.
The Bitto cheese is still made right on the side of the mountain pastures at an altitude from 1400 to 2000 meters in elevation. The cheese makers still use caléccs (ancient stone constructions), set up a makeshift tent for protection and start a wood fire. They milk the cows and goats onsite, so that the milk can be as fresh as possible and start the cheese making process within minutes in a large copper cauldron over the fire. It is only produced in the summer months from June 1st to September 30th.
After the cheese has been made it must be aged for a minimum of 70 days. Most private owners open their wheel after about five years and restaurants at 10 years.
To officially be called a Bitto Storico cheese makers are not allowed to use any additives, bacteria or feed the cows anything special. Ironically it was this hard line of staying true to its origins that almost hampered the Bitto cheese. Bitto DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) can also be found in the Valtellina, but it is less original than Bitto Storico.
The thing with DOP products is that they all have to be made very precisely and basically taste the same. This took the originality away from the cheese makers and also opened up the door to allowing cow feed and other additives so that each wheel of Bitto DOP would taste the same. There was a long standing court battle over this and this is eventually why Bitto Storico was created. It’s also the reason that you’ll only find 12 cheese makers still producing Bitto Storico today.
This fight that Bitto Storico put up to stay original is what made them such an easy nomination for Slow Food Presidia. It was selected in 2003 under the Italy Slow Food movement, which was founded to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions.
Where to Find Bitto Storico
Unfortunately you won’t find Bitto Storico in your local supermarket like you will other sought after cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Gruyère for fondue. You’ll need to travel to the small town of Gerolo Alta high in the Bergamo Alps to find Bitto Storico. As there are only 12 producers of Bitto Storico, you can imagine it being hard to come by.
Visit the Centro del Bitto Storico where you can learn all about the Bitto cheese making process. It’s part restaurant, part museum and part cheese aging cellar. Upstairs in the restaurant you can try local dishes typical to the area and sample different years of Bitto Storico to see how aging changes the taste. Spoiler alert: the 10 year aged cheese was definitely everyone’s favorite. Downstairs you will find the cellar with hundreds of wheels of Bitto Storico ranging from 1996 to today.
My trip was provided by inLombardia365 as part of the #InLombardia365 campaign in cooperation with iambassador in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and decision to eat entirely too much cheese are entirely our own.