Angels, transhumance and pecorino

Pecorino (sheep's milk cheese)

Pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese)

This is a true story about how cheese, history and a mountain village are inextricably entwined. It’s a long story because it goes back to Roman times. It has taken me 12 years even to begin to understand it.

You probably know that pecorino is an Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk, derived from the word for sheep: pecora. On the contrary, it’s the rare person outside Italy who knows that transhumance refers to the seasonal rotation of flocks and herds between different pastures. Even more obscure is the connection between transhumance and Saint Michael Archangel.

On 18 June a group of about 15 hikers, including me, stand expectantly in front of the church in the mountain village of Raggiolo, one of ‘The most beautiful towns in Italy’ (http://borghipiubelliditalia.it/project/raggiolo/).

Raggiolo, one of a few villages that still has a bar and grocery shop (Photo: Penny Barry)

Raggiolo, one of a few small villages that still has a bar and grocery shop (at bottom of the street, photo: Penny Barry)

 

Bell tower, Raggiolo

Bell tower, Raggiolo

We aren’t waiting for the Archangel, but for our guide Paolo Schiatti to lead us along an ancient transhumance route to a former shepherd’s hut on the crest of the mountain above Raggiolo where we get to watch pecorino and ricotta making and have a shepherd’s lunch. I’ve watched many shepherds make cheese, and I wonder whether here near Pratomagno in the Casentino (east of Florence) they make it in the same way as in the Garfagnana.

Our walk 'On the traces of transhumant shepherds'

Our walk will take us ‘In the footsteps of transhumant shepherds’

We learn from Paolo that the patron saint of shepherds is Saint Michael Archangel, but in Roman times the half-god, half-human Hercules was the favourite of pastoralists. According to Roman mythology he slew the fire-breathing monster Cacus who stole some of the cattle which he himself had stolen and was pasturing near Cacus’s cave. By one of those frequent transpositions of early Christianity, Hercules became the Archangel. In the New Testament Saint Michael defeats Satan to become a protector against the forces of evil.

San Michele, Lucca, with the monster Satan firmly underfoot (photo: Tracey Meredith)

San Michele, Lucca, with the monster Satan firmly underfoot (photo: Tracey Meredith)

Two feast days a year are devoted to the Archangel: 8 May and 29 September. In early May the shepherds took their flocks up to the alpine pastures. At the end of September they brought them down. From early mediaeval times they built shrines to Saint Michael along the transhumance routes. In the days when they wintered on the Maremma, the coastal plain of Tuscany, it took a whole week to walk to the alpine pastures above Raggiolo. We’re lucky we only have a 3-hour walk ahead of us, and no sheep.

Above the village we enter the chestnut woods (Photo: Penny Barry)

Above the village we enter the chestnut woods. (photo: Penny Barry)

 

After a steep climb, we're nearly even with the crest of the Pratomagno cross (photo: Penny Barry)

After a steep climb, we’re nearly even with the crest of the Pratomagno cross. (photo: Penny Barry)

The conversation about the Archangel might seem a distraction to a secular cheese lover wanting to know how Tuscan pecorino is made. Yet in Italy food and history are two facets of a common culture. The past spices the cuisine of today, and you can taste the difference between an industrial product made according to scientific principles and a traditional product made according to practices handed down through the generations.

Paolo (centre back in green shirt) shares some of his vast knowledge during a much needed break.

Paolo (centre back in green shirt) shares some of his vast knowledge during a much needed break.

Paolo’s way of encouraging us is to say, ‘Siamo arrivati’ (we’ve arrived) when we still have over an hour of the steepest part of the trail to go. At around 1000 m (3280 ft) we pass suddenly from the chestnut wood into a beech forest. The muffled silence might remind you of a sanctuary. To me it seems dead compared to the luxuriant undergrowth of a chestnut wood.

The clean floor of a beech forest

The clean floor of a beech forest

 

At last we truly have arrived.

At last we truly have arrived.

 

Alpine shepherds' hut restored by the village Brigade

Alpine shepherds’ hut restored by the village Brigade

Casetta di Bùite

We left with the mists we returned in the spring

following with our flocks the flow of life.

It was like this every time, every year

The Raggiolo Brigade

to the memory of transhumant shepherds Spring 2014

Angelo Luddi transfers the curd to the moulds.

Angelo Luddi transfers the curd to the moulds.

I always tell my guests that cheese waits for no man or woman. We’ve dallied too long. The cheesemakers, Angelo and Dino Luddi, have already added the rennet to coagulate the curd. Nowadays they use veal rennet which they buy from the pharmacy. They don’t lament the change from lamb’s rennet which they prepared themselves from a lamb’s stomach, even though the pecorino is less piquant.

They cut the curd using a wooden spino, an implement of the past. They use it not out of nostalgia but because it works well for the type of hard paste cheese they’re making. If there’s something modern that works better or is more convenient, they’re quick to adopt it, like the veal rennet. The past isn’t a prison.

A nice juxtaposition of traditional and modern: ancient spring, traditional curd cutting sticks, modern cheese moulds and Vim

A nice juxtaposition of traditional and modern: ancient mountain spring, traditional curd cutting sticks, modern cheese moulds, Vim and rubbish sack

 

Here's Vitalina, one of the cheesemakers on my cheese course, cutting the curd with her spino.

Here’s Vitalina, one of the cheesemakers on my cheese course, cutting the curd with her spino.

Dino’s job is pressing as much whey as possible from the curd.

A draining board from the days before stainless steel.

A draining board from the days before stainless steel. Microbiologists are just beginning to understand why wood is sanitary and safe.

 

I've never before seen anyone pinching the curd.

I’ve never before seen anyone pinching the curd.

 

Marzia, another cheesemaker on our cheese course, does it like this.

Marzia, another cheesemaker on our cheese course, presses the whey from the curd like this.

 

All the whey gets heated to to make ricotta.

Now the whey is heated to make ricotta.

As we explain during our cheese course, in Italy where it was born, ricotta is NOT cheese. That’s official. It’s a dairy product. The casein proteins and much of the fat in the milk go into the cheese. The main protein left in the whey is albumin. The protein in egg white is also albumin. When you cook egg white, it solidifies, and that’s what happens to the albumin in whey when it gets to about 90˚C (194˚F).

With two large pots of whey to heat, this is going to take a little while. We suddenly realise we’re starving, and wander off to find some lunch. The courses are ready in random order stretched out over three hours. Actually, most Tuscan Sunday lunches last this long. What I take to be antipasto consists of panini of prosciutto and salami with two wedges of pecorino on the side, all excellent. The pecorino has been supplied by Modesto Giovannuzzi. He tells me the sheep are at Castel Focognano (near Bibbiena), but doesn’t volunteer who made the cheese.

Modesto's impromptu cheese shop

Modesto’s impromptu cheese shop

I buy a wheel for the pecorino tournament at the end of our cheese course.

I check in with the ricotta. It hasn’t begun forming yet, but Angelo is adding some milk to the pot. I object that traditional ricotta shouldn’t have milk added. He agrees. He’s doing it to increase the yield for the big crowd today. He adds quietly,’The ricotta is much finer and smoother with nothing added to the whey.’ He moves over to salt the upper side of the pecorino.

Angelo pours a good quantity of sea salt (not iodised) on each form.

Angelo pours a good quantity of sea salt (not iodised) on each form. He uses more than my cheesemakers.

Besides adding flavour, the salt slows down the lactic acid bacteria so the cheese doesn’t become too acidic and also helps draw whey out of the cheese—essential if you want to mature it for several months.

Now he rubs it around on the surface.

Now he rubs the salt around on the surface.

 

He explains that tomorrow morning he'll turn the cheese out of the moulds and salt the other side.

He explains that tomorrow morning he’ll turn the cheese out of the moulds and salt the other side.

Around the corner of the hut, Modesto and his son Andrea are now busy making polenta dolce, a porridge made with chestnut flour instead of cornmeal. It saved the people of the mountains, the Garfagnana as well Pratomagno, from starvation during the Second World War. Some people never want to eat it again, but for most it’s the ultimate comfort food.

Chestnuts dried over a wood fire and ground in a water mill at Raggiolo

The chestnuts for this flour were dried by the traditional method over a wood fire and ground at the water mill of Raggiolo.

Drying the chestnuts, shelling them, sorting them and milling them is a winter occupation. You collect them after you’ve made your wine and before you begin harvesting your olives. In the days when the olive harvest took place at the end of November or even in December, your chestnut flour was already safely stowed in its chestnut-wood chests.

Photo: Heather Jarman

Modesto slowly adds the flour to boiling water and Andrea stirs like crazy with his polenta pole.

 

Photo: Heather Jarman

Modesto cuts it with a wire. My driver Marzio told me his grandfather used a willow twig and he presented me with one from the nearest willow tree.

A sudden commotion back around the corner signals that the ricotta strands are forming.

The coagulated albumin floats to the top.

The coagulated albumin is floating to the top.

Someone asks what the yield of ricotta is. Angelo doesn’t know, and I reply that for sheep’s milk it’s about 1.5%, but only half that for cow’s milk. Angelo says to me, almost accusingly, ‘You know the science, but we know the practice.’ He’s right. You could read every book about cheese and still not be able to make good cheese and ricotta. It’s the experience that counts, going back to your mother, uncle, grandmother, great-grandfather, and right back to your Roman ancestors and Hercules.

Aldo begins to skim off ricotta, but his wife Simonetta is demanding some liquid for her stale bread.

Aldo begins to skim off the ricotta, but his wife Simonetta is demanding some liquid for her pot of stale bread. (photo: Penny Barry)

You could fill a small cookbook with the Tuscan recipes for stale bread: zuppa, panzanella, pappa al pomodoro, aqua cotta to name just a few; and scottina, a shepherd’s dish. After skimming off the ricotta, the remaining liquid is called scotta. Around me it’s mostly fed to the farm animals, although some people say it’s a refreshing drink and a good broth for soup. To make scottina, you leave some of the ricotta in the scotta and ladle it over the bread.

Making scottina

Making scottina

 

I wouldn't go out of my way for this dish, but if you're in an alpine pasture and you don't have much else to eat, it probably hits the spot.

I wouldn’t go out of my way for this dish, but if you’re in an alpine pasture and you don’t have much else to eat, it probably hits the spot. I’d like to think they also had some salumi with them.

 

Doing our best!

Doing their best…

 

Time to head back down the mountain to Raggiolo

Time to head back down the mountain to Raggiolo

As we descend Paolo has an answer to every question I can throw at him and more. He tells me about how they preserved the chestnut flour by packing it into chestnut-wood chests to exclude the air. It was so tightly packed that you could cut it into blocks with a knife to take out the amount you needed. By summer it was a bit tired. To refresh it, they put it in a wood-fired oven until it turned dark brown and had an entirely different flavour. The conversation wanders to art history, politics, the problem of depopulation of rural villages like theirs and mine. Most people in the group have something to contribute. They own their history in a way I’ve never encountered outside Italy. Thank you Raggiolo for a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating day.

You can learn about Tuscan cheese and experience for yourself our cheesemakers’ the strong sense of their history on our Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/courses_with_artisan/theory-practice-of-italian-cheese/

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