The name sottocenere means "under ash." This Italian cheese made with pasteurized cow's milk and flecked with black truffles originated at a creamery in Venice, Italy, in the late 1990s. However, the ash preservation technique dates back centuries. A thin, crusty layer of gray ash mingled with various herbs and spices encases the semisoft, creamy pale yellow paste of sottocenere al tartufo. This cheese delivers a healthy dose of both protein and calcium, though it also contains a high percentage of fat.
Origin: Venice, Italy
Source: Cow's milk
Texture: Semisoft and creamy
Flavor: Strong essence of truffles
What Is Sottocenere?
Sottocenere gets its flavor from truffles, a subterranean fungus that grows near tree roots. Though commonly associated with Italy and France, truffles do grow in other areas of the world, including Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Northwest in the U.S. This rare culinary delicacy grows in white and black varieties, and trained dogs or pigs sniff them out for truffle hunters. The more abundant black truffles generally cost less than white ones.
The ash rind on sottocenere locks in the truffle aroma and preserves the cheese over a long period without any reduction in flavor. The cheesemaker mixes herbs and spices such as fennel, coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves with the ash, although they barely affect the cheese. The umami flavor and aroma come from truffle oil and the flecks of black truffle. The underlying sweet dairy flavor suggests scalded cream, while hints of vanilla soften the earthiness of the truffles. A strong truffle aroma precedes a slightly milder truffle flavor. This imported cheese costs more than many other varieties in the cheese case but far less than the price of fresh truffles.
The cheese starts with pasteurized cow's milk; added rennet helps form the curds. Flakes of black truffles get stirred into the warm curds in a giant vat, studding them with flavor, then the curds are molded into either one pound or 12-pound wheels. The cheesemaker rubs truffle oil on the exterior, increasing the aroma, then coats the wheels in beech ash mixed with dried herbs and spices. The wheels age anywhere for one to six months; the younger versions taste a bit fresher and have a softer bite. The ash coating preserves the cheese and locks in the flavor.
The distinctive truffle flavor of sottocenere makes it difficult to find a real substitute. Try other truffled cheeses such as bolschetto al Tartufo, made in Tuscany with white truffles, or black truffle pecorino from Sardinia. Otherwise, choose a cheese with similar characteristics such as a fontina Val d'Aosta and add shaved truffles or truffle oil to your recipe for flavor.
The intense aroma and flavor of this cheese may be too much for some people on its own. But if you love truffles, try it with a glass of sparkling Lambrusco or Italian barbera. Add a drop of honey or pair it with Wagyu beef carpaccio for a truly luxurious treat.
If the strong flavor seems overwhelming, try melting sottocenere into risotto or folding it into an omelet. You could use it in a grilled cheese sandwich, on a burger or pizza, or for truffled macaroni and cheese. It also works for an intensely flavored fondue or as a cheese dip for fries, veggie crudités, or chips.
This cheese makes an affordable luxury item to gift a party host around the holidays when it's typically more widely available at higher-end cheese counters.
Wrap sottocenere in parchment or wax paper, then cover it loosely with plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Keep it in the deli drawer of your refrigerator for up to two weeks. It does not freeze well.
Sottocenere melts well, so you can use it in place of other semisoft melting cheeses any time you want the earthy flavor of truffles in a dish. For example, exchange with goat cheese on a pizza, use it on top of grilled garlic bread, or in a loaded pizza casserole. The possibilities are endless if you allow yourself to get creative.
Can You Eat the Rind?
Technically you can eat the thin, brittle rind, but the gritty texture and bland flavor do not really enhance the experience of this cheese.