Frico: A Cheesy Delight
Friuli Venezia Giulia boasts many dishes that most other Italians have never heard of, and frico certainly falls into this class. What is it? As Fred Plotkin says in La Terra Fortunata, a delightful book dedicated to the foods and culture of the region, it's Montasio cheese gone to greater glory -- there are three different grades of Montasio, the primary cheese of the region: Fresco (young, about 30 days old, mild, and fairly creamy), semi-stagionato (slightly aged, up to 90 days, and firmer, though not sharp), and stagionato, which is aged up to 18 months (crumbly, and sharp but not too sharp). Each yields a variety of frico -- Montasio fresco makes for a runny frico fondente, Montasio semi-stagionato melts but also forms a crust, and Montasio stagionato has to be grated and makes for a crunchy delight that can also be molded into the shape of a basket, and is therefore an excellent container for presenting other foods. But what is frico?
Put simply, it's cooked cheese, and as such it goes a long way back. To quote from Maestro Martino, a 14th century cook, you "take fairly fat cheese that's neither too old nor too salty, and cut it into fine slices or dice it as you prefer. Set a deep pan over the coals and melt some butter or fresh lard in it, and add the cheese; if you like it soft you will turn it once, season it with sugar and cinnamon, and serve it forth that it be eaten piping hot. Another method is to begin by toasting slices of bread over the coals; put the slices into a cake pan and cover them with slices of cheese that are slightly thinner than they are, and cover all with a very hot lid so that the cheese begins to melt [in other words, broil; Artusi, who also lived before electric ranges, often suggests one cover the lid of your pot with coals to obtain a broiler-type effect]. When the cheese has melted, season it with sugar and cinnamon."
Though the basic concept is unchanged, things have changed since Maestro Martino's days; the sugar-and-cinnamon combination he uses is likely an Arab influence brought back by people who visited the Holy Land, and in the centuries since then it has faded. All the recipes I have seen for frico produce something savory.
The simplest recipe I have found simply says to grate well-aged Montasio, heat a non-stick pan with just a couple of drops of oil, sprinkle the cheese into the pan in a thin layer, and cook if for a few minutes, until golden on both sides.
Slightly more complete recipes say to press down gently on the cheese with a spatula as it cooks, to render out some of the oil; it will form a disk that can be turned, and when you have cooked the other side as you did the first and both sides are golden it's done.
The frico will be
flexible while it's still hot, and if you drape it over a glass or bottle to
cool and firm up you will obtain a cup or basket that will be a perfect
container for an antipasto that's not too moist. Figure a cooking time of about
5 minutes per frico -- it will depend upon how moist the cheese is -- and a pound of grated aged Montasio cheese to make four
baskets. If you choose instead to make disks you have an ideal snack.
How to make a cheese basket, step-by-step
A couple other varieties of frico, which are softer than the above, and will work quite nicely as a second course dish:
Frico con le Cipolle
Frico with onions, simple hearty fare.
Frico con le Patate
Frico with potatoes can be very satisfying.