Fontina cheese is a classic Italian cheese, although variations are made in several other countries as well. Depending on where the cheese comes from and how long it has been aged, fontina can be semi-soft to firm in texture, with a range of flavors from mild and creamy to more intense and pungent. The cheese is quite popular in Italian cuisine, especially in the region around the Alps where it originates. Variations have become popular around the world for a variety of cooked dishes and sandwiches, and it also makes a great table cheese.
All fontinas must be made from cow's milk. As a general rule, the milk is usually raw, and the best cheese is made from milk that is as fresh as possible. The interior of the cheese tends to be a rich straw yellow to pale cream in color, and it is classically riddled with very small holes. The milkfat content is usually around 45%, so the cheese tends to be very rich and creamy, with a nutty flavor that gets stronger with aging. The cheese also melts very well, and it is sometimes included in fondue and similar dishes.
In Italy, fontina cheese has been made in the Val d'Aosta since the 12th century. In 1957, a consortium of dairy producers and cheesemakers joined together to protect the cheese, and they stamp it with their mark if it meets their standards. Traditionally, Italian versions have a slightly flowery, summery flavor, thanks to the diet of the cows that are used to produce it. The cheese is also aged longer than other varieties, and it can get quite hard. Italian fontina also has a dark brown rind, which gets darker the longer that the cheese is aged.
A popular variation is Danish fontina. This cheese is certainly inspired by the Italian version, but it has a much more mild, creamy flavor, and it is not aged as long. As a result, it is a semi-soft cheese, rather than a firm one. The Danish cheese also has a red waxed rind. The more mild flavor and soft texture makes it a popular sandwich cheese.
When selecting fontina cheese in the store, shoppers should look for an evenly textured specimen without discoloration. Older Italian cheese may have a strong aroma, but young cheese should have a relatively neutral flavor, especially in wrappings. An Italian fontina stamped with the mark of the consortium will be high quality, although it may cost more than cheeses made in other parts of Italy and the rest of the world.