Mascarpone (also called mascherpone) A
rich, sweet, buttery, very perishable des-
sert cheese typical of Lombardia and
The above quote, from a well-thumbed Italian food encyclopedia of mine is succinct and on the whole, fairly correct. This cheese indeed is rich, sweet and buttery. It also pays to use your mascarpone promptly, because it has a similar storage life to that of cream. This dazzlingly rich cheese is also a specialty of the above regions - although the loyal citizens of Lombardy may well argue that mascarpone originated in their own province of Lodi.
Where this definition is a tad wanting is in the "…dessert cheese…" part. Sure, while mascarpone may have travelled the world on the backs of such famous sweet dishes as tiramisu, and its uses in the Italian sweet repertoire are numerous, mascarpone also has an integral place in savoury cookery. No more so than with mascarpone reale.
Reale is Italian for royal, but as to why this variation on the lovely soft-textured cheese is considered regal, your guess is as good as mine. The variation is not subtle. Mascarpone reale is mascarpone blended with a blue mould cheese - usually gorgonzola. Sometimes the gorgonzola is incorporated thoroughly into the mascarpone, while others stratify the cheeses, leaving each in distinctive colour, flavour and textural layers. The biggest shock when tasting this cheese for the first time is the saline departure from the mild and sweet mascarpone. Gorgonzola is salty - especially the picante version. When mixed together, the resultant cheese swings between the mild and creamy, and the complexly salty.
A typical use for mascarpone reale would see it star as a pasta sauce. Heat a walnut-sized piece of butter in a large sauté pan, and add some chopped garlic and fresh herbs such as oregano, marjoram or sage. Cook until the bubbling herby aroma fills the kitchen, then add 3 or 4 large spoonfuls of mascarpone reale. Let this mixture gently melt together, then season with sea salt and pepper. Meantime, cook some pasta to al dente, drain and pour into the pan with the sauce. Turn up the heat and toss to combine. Of course, such a rich sauce will need no extra cheese on top. A sauce like this is quite dense and creamy, and as such, long ribbon-shaped pasta would be the best choice. Try pappardelle, tagliatelle or fettuccine.
Surprisingly, this salty cheese also pairs well with some sweet flavours. The rich sweetness of honey stands up nicely to the buttery richness. A wonderful way to finish an Italian meal is to drizzle room temperature mascarpone reale with good quality honey. Serve this on a large plate surrounded by sliced, lusciously ripe figs.
The recipe below showcases this unique cheese with both its sweet and savoury elements. We ran this as a special at the restaurant recently, and its popularity was due in part to the sweetness of the fruit with the salt of the cured pork - and in part to the tang of balsamic vinegar and bite of rocket. If you love bold flavours, give this simple and elegant starter a try.
Mascarpone reale with pancetta, rocket and pear
Cut the pears into quarters lengthways and scoop out the seeds and surrounding hard flesh. Place them into a bowl of water with a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent them discolouring while you assemble the rest of the dish.
Place the oil and vinegar into a bowl and combine lightly with a fork. Heat a non-stick fry pan to medium-high. Brush the pancetta slices with a smidge of olive oil and place in the dry pan, a few slices at a time. Cook until the pancetta is starting to brown, then turn over. Cook for a few seconds more, the remove and drain on kitchen paper.
Divide the rocket between 6 plates. Drain the pears and slice thinly - arranging 2 quarters onto each plate. Cut or spoon the mascarpone reale (depending on its consistency) into small pieces and scatter over the pears. Rip the pancetta into small pieces and scatter over.
Using a spoon, whip up the oil and vinegar so that they combine slightly (they actually will remain defiantly separate) and spoon a little over each plate - making sure that each is evenly dressed. Grind over some black pepper and serve immediately - preferably in the sun.
This starter would be sensational served with a slightly sweet sparking wine. A rosé style with some residual sweetness, or an asti style Italian sparkler would fit the bill nicely.
¹ Italy for the Gourmet Traveller, Fred Plotkin
Kyle Kathie Limited, 1997
² You could try buying mascarpone reale at an Italian delicatessen or any reputable cheese providore. If it still eludes you, simply let some mascarpone and blue cheese (try gorgonzola or even Blue Castello) come to room temperature. Mix them together with a fork and refrigerate until ready to use.