Tuma Persa: The Lost Cheese (and a Cheesemonger’s Salvation)

At this point in my career, I have been peddling cheese at DiBruno Brothers for over a decade. After the obligatory hazing period and the numerous customers who take sadistic pride in “breaking the stones” of new employees, I have developed a substantially thick skin. There was a time that I would have been offended when a wise-cracker slandered “So what’s it like to cut the cheese for a living?” Now that just rolls off my back.

That being said, there is still one phrase that cuts to the core every time it’s uttered: “That’s not sharp enough.” What stings about this comment is the truth behind it. In a shop that carries over 300 varieties of cheese from Italy alone, how can it be that we, at times, do not have a blisteringly sharp provolone?

Of course, we have little control over the matter. Every wheel is different, and when one wheel is perfectly sharp, we sell it so quickly that we are forced to cut the next one prematurely. We increase our odds by carrying 5 varieties of provolone: three imported and two domestic. And the vast majority of the time, at least one of them aligns perfectly with the customer’s desires. That being said, there are times when all five are on the milder side, and the passionate cheesemonger becomes racked with guilt.

Ever try talking a South Philly Italian into trying a sharp British cheddar instead of the sharp provolone we are lacking? Good luck. All of the valid substitutes for provolone are either too salty, too dry or not Italian. Until now.

Several years ago, a well-respected Sicilian cheese maker named Salvatore Passalaqua moved into his new home in the hills outside Palermo. By some miracle, he found in his new closet a recipe for a cheese that had not been made for over one hundred years. He set out to recreate this cheese using traditional methods and equipment. The resulting cheese was dubbed “Tuma Persa,” or “Lost Cheese,” and not only can it substitute for provolone, but could very well replace it.

Provolone producers have nothing to fear. Salvatore produces each wheel by hand, outputting only 50 wheels a week. We at DiBruno’s are fortunate enough to acquire two wheels every Thursday, but even still we find ourselves out of it after the weekend. The appeals are numerous: it is strong and superlatively sharp without the expected high salt content typical of sharp provolone. And unlike provolone, which has a tendency to be sharp and biting but somewhat fleeting and short-lived, Tuma Persa is rich and earthy, using high-quality and immensely flavorful raw milk. Take one bite, and you will still be tasting it five minutes later. The finish is speckled with hints of green and black peppercorn. Connecting the first bite to the finish is an underlying current of fruit, almost as if it were washed with wine.

Its likeness to provolone implies that in can be used in all the same contexts. Soppressatta, Prosciutto and cured sausages all pair beautifully with it. Sicilian and Cerignola olives should be on the plate, along with roasted peppers and hearty Sicilian olive oil. As far as wine goes, a rustic cheese deserves a rustic wine: Brunello di Montalcino or Barolo.