Asiago and its Americanization (and reification)

asiago alto piano

Above: The Altopiano di Asiago, the Asiago high plateau, at the foot of the Alps, is part of what makes this community of seven townships so unique (image via Wiki Commons).

The Bele Casel blog is no place for rants.

But… last night, when I saw a commercial for Asiago Ranch Flatbread Grilled Chicken Sandwich at the Wendy’s fast food franchise (“the world’s third largest hamburger fast food chain,” according to the Wiki), the disconnect between the wholesomeness and beauty of the Asiago high plains and the heavily processed sandwich was too much to bear.

Not that I have anything against Wendy’s: fast food is part of what makes America great (I really mean that). The awareness that you can roll into nearly any American town and find the familiar flavors and aromas of fast food is part of what gives Americans their sense of shared identity and community (as odd as that may sound, I really believe that).

asiago cheese

Above: The fame of Asiago cheese emerged as early as the sixteenth century (image via Italian-Cheese.org).

And in all fairness to the executive chefs and markteters at Wendy’s, they showed some restraint in not calling the sandwich the “Asiago Ranch Panini on Ciabatta Bread Sandwich”, thus avoiding the common mistakes that American food marketers make when they use the plural of panino (pleonastic because sandwich is already in the name of the dish) and don’t realize that ciabatta is a type of bread and thus the designation bread would also be pleonastic. (And don’t get me started on the misuse of ciabatta in American fast food; technically they could have called the bread focaccia since it’s a flatbread.)

asiago ranch flatbread

Above: “Our NEW Asiago Ranch Flatbread Grilled Chicken Sandwich,” write the editors of the Wendy’s website, “brings a bold flavor to chicken sandwiches.”

And in all fairness to Wendy’s, Asiago-style cow’s milk cheese is widely produced in the United States and labeled as Asiago even though the cheese doesn’t come from Asiago. The U.S. is not obliged to observe the designations of protected origin that European do (the same way that American winemakers still label wines as Lambrusco or Burgundy).

Italian readers may wonder why the term ranch is used here since there are no American style ranches in Asiago. The “ranch” in question refers to the “ranch dressing” used on the sandwich.

American readers might be surprised to learn that the beautiful Asiago high plateau (Vicenza province in the heart of the Veneto) is not only home to the world-famous Aisago cheese.

It’s also a place of immense natural beauty where the unique combination of climatic conditions, altitude, soil type, and native grasses is what allows the dairy farmers to produce the unique texture and flavor of Asiago cheese.

It’s also a place where Germanic and Italic culture meet and blend together seamlessly. Until the mid-nineteenth century, a dialect of German was still widely spoken there (and German is one of the languages used on the Altopiano website).

hemingway handwriting

Above: I found this reproduction of Hemingway’s handwriting in this edition of his complete poems.

Hemingway fought at Asiago and mentioned the village in his poem “Arsiero, Asiago”:

Arsiero, Asiago,
Half a hundred more,
Little border villages,
Back before the war,
Monte Grappa, Monte Corno,
Twice a dozen such,
In the piping times of peace
Didn’t come to much.

He’s referring to the Battle of Asiago, one of the great battles of World War I.

Now, there’s nothing wrong heading down to Wendy’s to enjoy an “Asiago Ranch Flatbread Grilled Chicken Sandwich” at Wendy’s (if that’s your thing).

If you do, just remember that Asiago — and all the gastronomic culture and history that the toponym evokes — is so much more than a slice of cheese on a fast food menu.

Jeremy Parzen
blogmaster

Be sure to check out the Asiago High Plateau of Seven Townships website (including the Asiago webcam portal) and the Asiago High Plateau website. Also not to miss, the Asiago Observatory website.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Evan Dawson

    What a tremendous bit of food writing. Hemingway! Learned so much in this post, and now have a desire to go to Asiago. I recall Panera Bread having an “Asiago Cheese Bagel” when I was 19 years old, and a co-worker telling me, “Asiago cheese is like a warm hug from God.” To this day, I have no clue if Panera was using actual Asiago in that bagel.

  2. Dennis Panozzo

    I am of Asiago heritage with all of my grandparents of this Asiago plateau region in the province of Vicenza. I live there about 3 months per year and own the US business of a cheese company in that region. All the way through to the 1950’s, Asiago cheese was made with cow’s milk and sheep rennet, primarily. The early immigrants to the US, after WW1, were accustomed to this type of Asiago cheese. So the American Asiago cheese was made with this combination, exhibiting that sharp flavor that is reminiscent of a sharp provolone or pecorino romano.

    It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 1970’s that Italians began eating veal, thus making calf rennet available to use in the making of a cheese. The Asiago producers approached the Italian government in search of their own DOP certification, using a combination of cow’s milk and calf rennet. They were given that in the mid 1970’s.

    Of note, it is also the only type of cheese with (2) DOP certifications. One is for Asiago Fresco, a pastuerized, whole milk cheese. and the Asiago Mezzano and Asiago Vecchio are raw, partially-skimmed milk cheeses. Two distinct flavors and production methods.

    Enjoy them all. Fresco with pears. Mezzano with Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs. Vecchio with tannic Cabernets, Red Zinnfindel, and Barolo’s.

    Dennis Panozzo
    Managing Partner
    Monti Trentini USA

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