Paul Corsentino is a culinary scofflaw. And no, he doesn’t care. He even flaunts his villainous ways.
That’s right—the chef posts his wrongdoing right on the Salt Wood Kitchen & Oysterette menu for all to see. Smoked trout mac and cheese shatters the longstanding prohibition of putting cheese on fish.
“I don’t have any issue with cheese, especially Parmesan,” he boasts.
As it turns out, he’s not the only one. The gang at Cantinetta Luca in Carmel will slip anchovies on your pizza, for a price. Know the right people at Lalla Oceanside Grill on Cannery Row and you can get lobster nachos covered in the stuff.
“I’ve had fresh ahi tuna and goat cheese,” says John Cox of Cultura and Cult Taco, showing no remorse.
So what’s going on here? After all, the doctrine barring cheese from ever touching seafood has been around for centuries. Yet when you stop and think about it, many dishes from around the world ignore it. Consider fish tacos (Mexico), or mussels drenched in white wine and blue cheese (France). Clams baked with a Parmesan-style cheese is popular in Chile. And what about lox and bagels or the all-American tuna melt?
“Burrata and caviar is a winner,” Corsentino adds.
Yeah. Gonna run out to Lucky and pick up some beluga.
Anyway, maybe it’s not really a rule, after all. A quick search reveals no convictions, no arrests—hell, not even a warrant involving the combination of cheese and fish.
Then why are many people aghast when the two are paired? Writing in a 2018 edition of Atlas Obscura, Dan Nosowitz reported on the reaction of judges on Top Chef when a contestant featured trout covered in grated cheese. “I really hate any mixture of seafood and cheese,” Padma Lakshmi said. Tom Colicchio—the show’s head judge—chimed in with an “I’m with you.”
And when I mentioned the topic in the Weekly’s posh editorial suite, editor Sara Rubin screamed “How dare you!” and threw one of the spare Lalique crystal vases at my head. It took four valets and a butler to wrestle her down.
Yes, the question is that contentious. But why?
Historians who delve into culinary spats blame the Italians. Well, also Hippocrates and to some extent Aristotle. But mostly the Italians.
You see, they may ignore stops signs and traffic lanes. They may ignore all those Communications 101 lessons that harped on about “sender, receiver, message.” They may flop to the ground in agony when an opposing soccer player glances at them (which is a different matter, but I wanted to get it out there). But when it comes to food, Italians adhere to a strict set of rules. Eggs for breakfast? Not a chance. A nice cappuccino with lunch? That’s like putting your life at risk. Asking for a knife when the spaghetti comes out? Buttering the bread? Pouring a Coke with your main course? You are on really thin ice.
Patrick Browne of The Local recounted the mob that gathered during a visit to Rome when he sprinkled grated cheese on his stew.
“‘Ma che cafone!’ yelled a stranger pointing at me. Translation: ‘What an oaf!’ What followed was a five minute exposition of why Parmesan does not go on your secondo—main course—from the stand’s owner and various customers."
There’s more—Italian cuisine is regional, so there are variations; and they will add some shellfish to pizza, oddly—but it’s probably best to leave it here. Historians suggest that the prohibition of cheese and fish spread to this country with immigrants and the popularity of Italian cooking.
Some trace this rule to a concern that delicate flavors in fish would be pummeled by potent cheese. Yet a number of food writers have countered that there are equally powerful flavors in the seafood world and plenty of demure cheese out there. A dollop of ricotta, for example, could do no harm to salmon.
“It depends on the cheese and the fish,” observes Deborah Wenzler of Baum & Blume in Carmel Valley. “Not a heavy cheese, but a dry cheese—like a Parmesan crust.”
Salmon and other fish easily stand up to a Parmesan crust.
So after all that, there is nothing illegal or immoral in the pairing. Corsentino and the others are spared. And you can order the smoked trout mac and cheese without fear, depending upon the nationality of the people at the next table.
But just where did this whole cheese-fish thing start?
Well, some experts indicate that most Italian cheeses come from inland areas, where seafood was generally unavailable in the days before refrigeration. Yet there’s that nagging word “most”—as well as the fact that most regions have lakes and rivers and ponds and such.
Freshwater fish is a thing.
Keep in mind, however, that the ancients warned against the combination. Aristotle dismissed fish and cheese. In his On Ancient Medicine, Hippocrates allowed that “Some can eat their fill of it”—the it being cheese—”without the slightest ill effect.” Yet he charged that the evil curd caused rheums and catarrh (neither are very pretty), and that aged cheese would lump in the stomach for days or weeks.
As you can guess, this would in turn tip the humors out of whack.
Yes, the humors. There were four of them—blood, phlegm and two colors of bile (yellow and black)—and they needed to be kept in balance to ensure proper health.
Hey, Galen agreed with Hippocrates, if you need a second opinion. And Medieval doctors backed this theory up, as well. Take this from Englishman Thomas Muffet, who referred to himself as a physician (which was as good as a medical license back then): “Old and dry cheese hurteth dangerously: for it stayeth siege, stoppeth the liver, engendereth choler, melancholy, and the stone.”
Scurvy skin was a risk, too. It’s a wonder the cheesemaking industry survived. Even Jesus served fish without the stuff.
But Nosowitz developed a more intriguing theory. In the wake of World War II, as Italy began to recover and rebuild—and as American culture began to intrude—the people began to worry about eroding tradition and the loss of their national identity. So, he noted, “Italians locked in on what they grew up with. They way their grandmothers did it, that was the only way to do it.”
He points out that dishes now considered traditional to Italian cooking lean toward recipes from the late 1800s. “Pizza margherita, bolognese, risotto, osso buco and many more can be dated to that era, and no earlier,” Nosowitz wrote.
Probably it’s a combination of all—maybe without taking measure of the humors. It’s hard to get a referral for a good bleeding or leeching anymore.
So it comes down to this: Go ahead and melt whatever cheese works with the particular piece of seafood over the dish. Make a big tuna ball for the next party. Dip all the crab you want into the fondue pot. Crumble feta all over the shrimp. It’s fine.
Until the polizia show up at your door. Or worse, an Italian grandmother.