All winter I’ve been banned from taking clients to visit one of my favourite cheesemakers because they were rebuilding the dairy. When you arrived at the old dairy you entered a shabby sitting room with an old table in the centre, along one wall a lumpy sofa, usually occupied by one of the farm cats, and along another an old chestnut-wood sideboard. It was dingy, but welcoming. The walls were decorated with black-and-white photographs of the family, showing grandfather and his sons posed outside the barn, and a poster listing the cheeses they used to produce. Since granddad died, they’d narrowed the range to fresh pecorino and ricotta made from the milk of their 400 handsome black Massese sheep. The cheesemaking took place behind in a space no larger than a corridor. Four large gas burners sat on the floor on the right and a narrow stainless steel draining-shelf with an upturned rim was fixed to the white tiled wall on the left. Giuliana and her daughter-in-law Maria Rosa took turns making the pecorino in a large aluminium pot, warming the milk on a burner, cutting the curd with a wooden stick and bending almost double to gather up the chopped-up curd into a lump after it had sunk to the bottom of the pot. Although there was barely enough room to turn around, each pecorino-sized lump was put into a plastic mould on the stainless steel shelf behind to allow the whey to drain and run into a plastic bucket on the floor at the far end of the shelf. Then they’d make ricotta by reheating the whey in battered copper cauldrons on the same burners on the ground. It was back-breaking work, and I spent the winter imagining the new large, more convenient dairy with the burners at a more comfortable height and more space to move about in.
Today I went to see it. The front wall of the sitting room had been knocked down and replaced by a shop window. From the yard, I could see inside a chill counter filled with cheeses, and shelves affixed to the side walls stacked with honey, grappa and some kitsch stuffed animals. The photos had gone. A window had been inserted into the back wall of this new shop through which I glimpsed the enlarged dairy full of gleaming elephantine stainless-steel vats. Maria Rosa was standing at one on some portable steps, since the vat is too tall for her to operate from the ground. She beckoned me in and, as I entered, I realised she was peering intently at a thermometer immersed in the milk that filled the vat. I commented that I’d never seen her or Giuliana use a thermometer before. She explained that with this new container that heated the milk by circulating hot water in its double walls, she had lost her sense of the temperature.
While we waited for the milk to coagulate, she listed the benefits of the new system. Before they only had the capacity to make half their milk into cheese; they sold the other half which brought in less income than cheese. Besides that, now they have a larger temperature-controlled storeroom, and instead of selling all the pecorino fresh, they’ve started maturing some of it, which also adds value. Since they’re making more cheeses, they can branch out and reach new markets by flavouring the pecorino with walnuts, tomato, pepper, herbs and hay. I asked her whether she liked, for instance, the pecorino aged in hay. ‘No’, she admitted frankly. ‘It’s too dry’. But then added quickly, ‘Lots of people like it because they eat it with honey and jam’. During this conversation, Maria Rosa tested the curd four times to check whether it was ready to be cut. Previously the women had a sixth sense about when it was ready and only once had to test it a second time. When she finally decided it was ready, she pressed a button and a vertical frame strung with wires started to rotate inside the vat and cut the coagulated curd into small pieces. When she judged they were small enough, she hauled the free end of a large-diameter plastic hosepipe over to a two-metre square stainless steel box-table on legs and casters, which took up most of the centre of the room. She now pressed a red button on the vat and the cut curd and whey was pumped from the vat through the hosepipe into moulds in a frame in the box-table. She needed my help to redirect the awkward, heavy hosepipe to different areas. When all the curd was in the box, it had to be redistributed among the moulds which required wheeling the table away from the wall. Again it was too heavy for her to do on her own, as was the frame holding the moulds, which had to be lifted out after the moulds were full. Usually her daughter was around to help. I remembered when even old Giuliana could lift all the human-sized equipment by herself. Now Maria Rosa looked awkward as she worked, compared to the ease and grace she had displayed when working in the old cramped dairy. I observed that the new system seemed to distance her from the cheese so her senses were no longer in control, and she agreed. But she insisted that the flavour of the cheese is the same. When she gave me a taste, I didn’t tell her that it had a bitter taste that hadn’t been there before. And best of all, she assured me, Giuliana is glad not to have to make cheese any more.
When I had arrived, Giuliana was taking down the laundry. I’d greeted her and asked how things were going. She’d replied, ‘In somma’, which usually means ‘Could be better’.