Enea is one of the cheesemakers to whom I take my guests.
He lives on a farm at the end of a dirt road that runs along the top of a ridge. At the point where the tarmac runs out, there’s a vineyard. Bumping slowly along the rutted road you pass a house, then nothing for 10 minutes. As the nose of the ridge begins to dip toward the valley, you spy a ramshackle house with solar panels on the roof. If you come in July, you’ll think you’ve arrived at a farm machine museum until you see Enea putting his heritage wheat through the vintage thresher.
Enea and his wife Valeria are nearly self-sufficient. They have a herd of goats, two cows, a few chickens, a couple of horses, a vegetable garden, an olive grove and fields of cereals and hay. They’re hoping for another cow.
During the spring and summer Enea milks the goats every morning, makes cheese with their milk and then, with the help of his working dogs, takes them out to graze. The dogs are tri-lingual. I don’t think the goats are. On days when we’re there and he doesn’t go out with them in the morning, their complaints are perfectly comprehensible nonetheless.
On Wednesdays he makes sourdough bread. His bread shed contains a wood-fired oven and a tiny mill where he grinds enough of his heritage wheat for the week’s batch of bread. On Wednesday evenings he goes to town to deliver his produce to a group of friends who buy collectively
They’re self-sufficient for art and music too. Valeria paints and Enea plays the guitar. The solar panels and batteries keep them in touch with the outside world via their cell phones, computer and internet connection.
One of the guests in the last group I took there asked Enea why he chose to make cheese. He told us this story:
‘When I finished school, I knew I didn’t want to go to university, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I enjoyed helping a friend pick his olives. Then I rented an apartment from a cheesemaker with goats. He was French and made French-style soft goat cheese. I watched him and began to help him. I saw he was always smiling, and I decided that was the life I wanted.’
Enea is one of the cheesemakers who teaches our course Theory and Practice of Italian Cheese. Click here for all the details.
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/).
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
Casetta di Bùite
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.
Dino’s job is pressing as much whey as possible from the curd.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A sudden commotion back around the corner signals that the ricotta strands are forming.
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.
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.
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’ strong sense of their history on our Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course: https://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/theory--practice-of-italian-cheese.html
Sant’Antioco is a small island off the southwest coast of the large island of Sardinia, an island squared you might say. It’s afflicted by two winds: the maestrale from the northwest and the levante from the east. One or the other blows nearly every day, but since they take turns, there’s always a calm sea for fishermen (and us) on the leeward side of the island.
On a bright spring morning the fishing boats are tied up to the quay, squeezed in side by side. Too many fishermen chasing too few fish. Many of them augment their income by offering pescaturismo, fishing excursions for tourists. I’m excited. For years I’ve wanted to learn about fishing in the Mediterranean, but it took a long time to find the right place and fisherman.
We arrive at our boat the ‘Alessandro P.’ and the live Alessandro, son of fisherman Mauro Pintus with whom we’re going fishing. Soon Mauro, his wife Roberta and their 14-year-old daughter arrive all lugging groceries. We climb aboard…
Read more about our idyllic day at sea at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/gone-fishin/
Join us next April for more adventures on our Celebrating Sardinia tour: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/celebrating-sardinia/
What happened to Janet after indulging in artisan food in Tuscany? Here’s the unexpected answer in my latest post on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/life-changing/
Shortly after she returned home to California I received a WhatsApp message from her which began:
“You have ruined me!!!”
I was worried, but not for long. Read the rest of my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/life-changing/
I’ve long wondered how to incorporate the rich agricultural heritage of the Lucca plain into a tour. Watching a bean stalk grow would try the patience even of a very slow traveller.
On Thursday I visited the organic farm Favilla in the suburbs of Lucca, where I was welcomed by Andrea, the owner’s son. As he spoke about his farm and its crops, the words tumbled out of his mouth and his face was alive with the enthusiasm he and his family devote to their project. The list of crops is long leaving no season without its fruits: wheat, vegetables and fruit.
To find out more about the small group tour germinating at Sapori e Saperi Adventures, read the rest of my blog at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/a-tour-sprouts/. Read to the bottom of the blog and you’ll find a special offer.
Save the dates: 2–9 July 2017.
In England when I used to prepare historical feasts for Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, I pined futilely for a cardoon farmer. Cardoons cropped up regularly in recipes of the 17th and 18th centuries. I finally persuaded a friend to grow them on his allotment, but he planted them next to his artichokes, which are nearly identical, and couldn’t remember which was which. In culinary terms it matters; you eat the flower of an artichoke, but the stem of a cardoon. I can’t find any advice on what would happen if you ate the stem of an artichoke, and I didn’t try.
Cardoons are common in Italian shops and markets from November to February. Although they are completely unrelated, they look like giant celery but surprise with a flavour of artichoke hearts. The heads come in two shapes, depending on how they’re grown: straight stalks which are called cardi, and curved ones called gobbi. Gobbo means ‘hunchback’, and touching an amulet of a gobbo is said to bring good fortune. Whichever the shape, the cultivation and preparation of cardoons is fiddly. During their last month in the field, the stems are blanched like celery, by piling up the earth or tying straw or paper around them so they lose their chlorophyl and become creamy white. If you’re growing them gobbo-style, you bend them in half before covering them with soil.
In the kitchen you de-string them, cut them into chunks and boil them in acidulated water to keep them from rusting. They’re good eaten hot simply with a drizzle of this year’s extra-virgin olive oil. In the Abruzzo a traditional Christmas lunch begins with a soup of cardoons and meatballs.
I’ve recently tried a Lucchese recipe for using up leftover bollito (boiled beef): infuse olive oil with garlic and sage leaves over a low heat, add chunks of boiled cardoons and sauté until they start to brown, add the boiled beef cut into cubes, stir well, deglaze the pan with white wine, add a few tinned tomatoes (not tasteless winter tomatoes) and simmer for 15 minutes. As long as you go light on the tomatoes, the flavours balance each other perfectly.
Nutritionally cardoons are star players. They are said to have a fortifying and bracing effect on the stomach, protect the liver, reduce cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Who knows, maybe they’re the elixir of youth.
There’s an old variety called cardo gobbo of Nizza Monferrato from the province of Asti in Piedmont. Being on the brink of disappearance, Slow Food has recognised it as a presidium. It grows on sandy soil with no fertilisers, chemical treatments or irrigation. Sown in May, by September the tall luxuriant stalks are ready to be bent over and covered with soil. The Slow Food website describes the plant dramatically attempting to liberate itself to get to the light. In the process of its struggles, it swells up and turns pure white. Once harvested and cleaned, it’s the only cardoon that can be eaten raw, and is an indispensable ingredient of bagna cauda, the typical Piemontese warm sauce based on garlic, extra-virgin olive oil and anchovies. Continuing the purple prose, ‘It’s not merely a dish but a convivial ritual. Simmering in the centre of the table in an earthware terrine, the diners dip the pieces of vegetable and bring them to their mouths, catching the oil on a chunk of bread.’ If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Nizza Monferrato right now.
Postscript: Some ingredients draw me to repeated research. I had written this piece before discovering that I also wrote about cardoons in January 2013: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/seasonal-eating-4-cardoons-2/
At the end of my Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course, I organise a little game: an England vs Italy sheep’s milk cheese tournament.
This entails a trip back to the UK immediately before the course to go to Neal’s Yard Dairywhere I can always find a few excellent sheep cheeses. For the May course I did my shopping instead at the annual Artisan Cheese Fair at the old Cattle Market in Melton Mowbray. Although in its fifth year, I had never heard of it, but being featured by the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, I figured it would be worth the trip to Leicestershire, a direct train journey from Cambridge on the line to Birmingham, from where my friend Amanda joined me.
It’s also one of the counties, along with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, in which Stilton is allowed to be made. (Stilton, like Parmigiano Reggiano, is a registered product with a Protected Designation of Origin.)
Unlike the market in Cambridge, which is today a ‘cattle market’ in name only, the one at Melton Mowbray still functions every Tuesday morning. I make a resolution to come back to witness the livestock auction.
Turning to the entrance to the cheese fair opposite, we find the entrance fee is only £2 and admits you not only to the area populated with vendors’ stalls, but also to a series of cheese classes and tastings.
The Red Poll Cattle Society was founded with the aim of preserving this versatile native breed. They note the long lactation period and ideal composition of the milk for cheesemaking.
The British Isles are a land of cattle. Sheep these days are reared for meat, and it’s harder than I expected to find sheep’s milk cheese. These people from Canterbury can’t offer any.
Amanda has served me excellent goat’s milk cheeses made by Pete Humphries of White Lake Cheeses in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, heart of cheddar country.
At the far end of his stall, I glimpse a label saying ‘No Name Sheep Cheese’. He’s begun experimenting with sheep’s milk and this cheese is so new that he hasn’t come up with a name yet.
It’s a bit young to compete with the mature pecorinos in the Italian team, but I hope it will make up in youthful energy for what it lacks in experience.
Sharing a corner stall are two outstanding talents of British cheese, Jamie Montgomery who makes arguably the best cheddar in Britain, and Joe Schneider who makes Stichelton.
Amanda and I found the farm on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire for Joe and Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy when they were setting up the dairy to produce what they expected to call ‘raw milk Stilton’, a return to how Stilton was made for centuries. However, due to an anomaly in the PDO definition of Stilton, it can only be made with pasteurised milk. One of the Dairy’s customers suggested Stichelton, an early name for the village of Stilton. Joe welcomed us to the stall and gave us a good chunk of this incomparable cheese to take home. Notice in the photo that the Stichelton isn’t excessively blue. The flavour of the blue mould doesn’t kill the flavour of the cheese.
In search of two more sheep cheeses we crossed to another pavilion, passing a ukulele band and an artful display of Quickes Traditional Cheddar.
Right at the entrance was the stall I needed. Carlow Farmhouse Cheese had brought several mature sheep’s milk cheeses to the fair. They don’t have their own website, and this one only admits to cow’s milk cheese.
Their cheesemaker, Nadja, guided us through her samples. It was hard to choose, but I finally took some ‘pecorino-style’ and ‘cheddar-style’.
Business done, we threaded our way through the crowds to a promising-looking pork pie stall. The pies were obviously raised by hand.
The pastry is made by mixing hot melted lard with flour. It has to be exactly the right temperature to form it around the wooden moulds (see photo above)—not so hot that it burns your hands and not so cold that it cracks.
The baker himself sells us our pie. He reminds me of my Italian artisan food producers when he talks about the natural ingredients he uses: the flour from a nearby windmill, pigs from a local farm and pig’s-foot jelly he makes himself. He’s sold 300 pies this morning and will be off soon to make another 300 for the next day’s fair.
With a glass of incredibly strong cider, we settle down to lunch. I used to make pork pies myself, but these pies beat even my best. The crust was crunchy, the filling tasted like pork (not overpowered by spices and preservatives) and the jelly was well seasoned and firm without being rubbery.
Melton Mowbray is a pretty market town, but even without its other attractions, it would be worth a pilgrimage for the King’s Road Bakery pork pies alone.
Italy is usually the clear winner of the pecorino match, but this time Ireland came out top in the opinion of our maestro Giancarlo Russo, a judge in international cheese competitions. Young ‘No Name’ was a big hit too with several of the course participants.
A guest blog by Bob Schroeder
Bob, his brother Dick and their friend Cullen Case came on my Advanced Salumi Course. They wanted to make the most of their visit and signed up for a truffle hunt on the Tuesday afternoon after the extension workshop. Bob gave me permission to republish his enthusiastic report to his family and friends back in the States.
January 20, 2015
We went truffle hunting today. Lots of fun. Our guide actually trains dogs. He took Guy Fieri of Food Network fame on a hunt.
In case you don’t know, truffles can be found all year long. Although the white Italian and black Périgord truffles are the stars, they’re all good and well worth tasting. We have seven edible ones in Tuscany. After the hunt, we go back to Riccardo’s home for a truffle feast cooked by his wife Amanda. We sit in their kitchen sipping prosecco with the antipasti and get to be part of the family.
Just back from my annual visit to family and friends in Los Angeles, Costa Mesa and Santa Barbara. It was a foodie time. Not least because my sister Gai Klass, before she retired, was top caterer in LA (according to me and the Zagat Guide); my 3-year-old great-nephews are following in the family tradition; my friends in Costa Mesa came on my Advanced Salumi Course last year and are ace picklers, aficionados of Mexican cuisine and blossoming norcini(curers of pork); my friend in Santa Barbara is a private chef (who did a personalised tour with me several years ago); and the rest are great cooks and lovers of good food.
I report the latest trends.
Armies of pigs have invaded delis, restaurants and antique shops. Everywhere I went pork, from ears to ribs to tails, was on the menu.
As expected wine held sway even in the loos in the Santa Ynez Valley, best known for its Pinot Noir.
But craft beer was running a close second (as it does now in Italy)…
…and came first on Main St, Venice (CA)
…and in Carpinteria.
Sardinians on Main St, Santa Monica, produce one of Italy’s best exports.
And everyone was getting on the buy local and gluten-free band-wagons.
In case you’re in the area, I’m sure they’d all love to see you:
Bacon & Brine, Solvang
Angels Antiques, 4846 Carpinteria Avenue, Carpinteria,
DolceNero, 2400 Main Street, Santa Monica
For a dinner that was so good that I forgot to take a photo:
Barbareño, 205 W Cañon Perdido Street, Santa Barbara
PS The next generation gets a head start in the kitchen.
The first year I went to the International Truffle Fair at San Miniato one of the sideshows was a small bookstall.
A woman thrust a book into my hands and explained exasperatedly, as she touched a finger to her head, that it had been written by her loopy husband. Perhaps he had insisted she listen as he declaimed each of its 121 pages. As I read the polemical Cibo Contro Natura (Unnatural Food) I could hear Signor Pitinghi shouting his manifesto while gesticulating with his hands. The flowery language can be over the top, but far from being mad, it’s full of insights into a passing Italian food culture. This is a frustrated man with the memory of a flavour in his mouth which he finds harder and harder to reproduce in the kitchen. Perhaps his wife is a bad cook, but this isn’t what he laments. He’s dismayed by the swamping of natural food by industrial food, of slow food by fast food, of real cooking by virtual cooking, of found ingredients by packaged and marketed products.
Having read a chapter or two, the book itself got swamped by other literature I picked up at other food fairs and only re-emerged recently. My experience of Italian culture, not to mention my comprehension of the Italian language, has grown in the intervening years and many of Signor Pitinghi’s ideas set me thinking and exploring half-trodden paths.
Among his many provocative statements is the chapter title ‘Bisogna provare a cucinare o almeno…a cuocere’, which translates literally: ‘It is necessary to try to cook or at least…to cook’. The dilemma for me is one of linguistics and culture; for him it’s one of action. I check my excellent Italian-English dictionary by Ragazzini and Biagi just to make sure both cucinareand cuocere mean ‘to cook’. They do, but there’s a hint of a difference. Cucinare can also mean ‘to do the cooking’. My Italian friends sometimes correct me for using one or the other incorrectly, but I haven’t quite got it yet.
Back in San Miniato having lunch with Riccardo and Amanda, my truffle hunter and his wife, I ask them if they can enlighten me.
We’re eating a typical Tuscan lunch, a simple roast chicken with potatoes and onions. Amanda explains that if she had bunged the chicken into a roasting pan and stuck it in the oven until it was done, that would be cuocere. Instead, she had seasoned the chicken, browned it in olive oil, deglazed the pan with white wine, put it in the oven and basted it from time to time. She’d cut up the potatoes and onions and added them to the roasting pan to cook and become glazed by the juices of the chicken. All very simple yet this is cucinare. Now I could transfer it to my own culture: ‘I can boil an egg, but I can’t cook’.
Pitinghi reminds his Tuscan readers how simple their cuisine is and muses on whether in our ‘global village’, with mother at work and incessant television cooking programmes interleaved with adverts for snacks full of preservatives and breaded fish fingers ready for frying, the family no longer knows how to keep traditions alive, especially those of cooking and local food. He ends with this exhortation ‘to all of us: “let’s try to cucinare!” or at least, if this verb seems too challenging “let’s try at least to cuocere something”.’
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