If it weren’t for the coronavirus, the Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course would have started on Thursday 7 May.
Since we were all staying at home and washing our hands, I posted each day on Facebook what you would have done if you had signed up for the course. I'm reproducing it here in case you missed it over there. It won’t be a virtual course, because I believe the best way to learn to make cheese is to be in the dairies of my cheesemakers not only watching, but also smelling, touching, hearing and tasting. Not only learning to make cheese, but also learning the philosophy of making cheese by tradition, instead of from recipes. The fascination of making the same cheese every day and not getting bored. Because for a cheesemaker, every day the milk is different, the weather is different. Every day you learn something new.
Thursday 7 May
We pick you up at Pisa and take you to Agriturismo Cafaggio near San Miniato on the Arno River. It has a famous national white truffle fair every November, and we're having truffles for dinner after the introduction to the course by my co-leader Maria Sarnataro.
There's nothing virtual about my truffle hunter Riccardo. Hunting for truffles and training dogs are his hobbies. He's a trained nurse, and in reality, he’s on the COVID-19 frontline taking swab tests at care homes.
Friday 8 May
This morning we’re at Enea Giunti’s farm to learn about making lactic fermented goat’s milk cheese. As soon as we arrive, you feel transplanted to a parallel universe, where simplicity and personal fulfilment triumph over technology and commerce.
We start in the dairy where Enea has three days’ production on the go so you can see every stage of the slow acidic coagulation.
Someone asks what starter cultures Enea uses. He waves his hand around the room: ‘The bacteria that live here. We’ve been friends for many years.’ He doesn’t know how the Geotrichum candidum arrived either, but it did.
Before lunch we go down to see the goats. Enea opens the gate and we go out with him, the dogs (which understand three languages) and the goats to experience the life of a goatherd.
Every Wednesday Enea makes sourdough bread in his teensy-weensy bakery where he stone grinds the heritage varieties of wheat he cultivates and bakes the bread in a wood-fired oven he built. Once a week he delivers his cheese and bread to a private buying group. His wife Valeria is an artist and cooks our lunch and we get to taste Enea’s delicious cheese. You can read a little bit more about Enea in my blog.
If you have excess milk or want to broaden your product range, gelato and ice cream (yes, they’re different) are obvious candidates, so we’re off to the Cremeria Opera in Lucca for a lesson. I used to think all you have to do to make good gelato is follow a recipe. Since meeting Mirko Tognetti and launching our gelato course, I’ve learned there’s a lot more to it than that. You have to understand the principles of balancing ingredients in order to produce consistently full-flavoured and smooth-textured gelato that will keep for months in a freezer, especially if you’re inspired to create your own flavours. An example of the importance of the balance is our many attempts to use Enea’s fresh goat cheese. Because the percentage of fats and milk solids varies significantly through the milking season, our gelato was either sandy or way too solid. For the next cheese course starting 27 August (I hope), we’re going to make ricotta gelato. The composition of ricotta is more consistent, and Mirko makes a fabulous one.
Saturday 9 May
For the rest of the course we stay at Agriturismo La Torre (the Tower) at Fornoli (Bagni di Lucca / Thermal Springs of Lucca). I try to base all my courses and tours at agriturismi to invest directly in the rural economy. La Torre produces olive oil and honey and has a restaurant with a cook who uses foraged plants when they’re available.
We drive 40 minutes on narrow, winding mountain roads to reach Vitalina’s farm. Calling it a farm will conjure up a mistaken idea in your heads. You arrive at the end of a valley where the river disappears into a gorge. All you see is a stone house, a couple of stone out-buildings and ramshackle wooden sheds with corrugated iron roofs perched on steep slopes clothed in mixed deciduous woodland. Vitalina’s husband Pellegrino (pilgrim) spends his days following the goats on paths through the woods. Vitalina makes her simple hard-paste caprino (‘capra’ means goat) in one of the stone out-buildings and matures it in another next to the river where the running water helps maintain the correct temperature and humidity.
As we climb the steep path to the goats, Vitalina tells you that in a territory of shepherds her family was always known as the ‘goat people’. When she was a child, she was always out with her father and uncle looking after the goats and learning to make cheese.
One of the great dramas of the course is Pellegrino setting out with the goats. Click the picture below to view the video.
As you can see, between 25% and 30% of the animals are sheep. They’re not improved breeds, but are mixtures of the local goats and sheep of the Apennine Mountains whose peaks soar above the farm. Vitalina makes three different cheeses using pretty much the same method: pure caprino, mixed sheep and goat's milk, mixed goat and cow’s milk. You might not have realised that you can mix milks and how good they are.
We descend to the dairy to watch and participate in making the cheese and then ricotta with the whey.
You can only buy Vitalina’s cheese and ricotta from her doorstep, and people drive long distances to get it. She attributes the excellence of her products to never refrigerating her milk. Between Easter and the end of August she makes cheese and ricotta twice a day! Many participants on the course have dreamed of returning to work alongside her.
After a brief rest, we arrive at Marzia Ridolfi’s in time for the evening milking. We used to watch Marzia milk the cows, some by hand and others using a portable machine. However, it was too painful for all of us. In Italy most dairy cows are kept in stalls for their whole lives. Drive through Parma and Modena Provinces where 3.75 million wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano were produced last year, and you’re lucky if you see one cow in a pasture! But Marzia's sheep and goats are free range, and I love watching her son Federico milk the mixed flock of white Garfagnina and black Massese sheep.
Marzia’s family is dear to me. She lives with her mother-in-law Ida, her husband Roberto and two of their grown children. The elder daughter moved to Lucca (50 minutes’ drive away), but Federico and Stefania decided to stay on the farm. Not many young people do these days, and I like to think that my bringing cheesemakers from all over the world added to their sense of self-esteem and influenced their tough decision to stay on their smallholding. Ida is a powerhouse. She was a butcher, norcino (person who cures pork), baker, cheesemaker and winemaker, and despite being in her 80s, is still going strong. She taught Marzia to make cheese and Roberto all the other skills, which they in turn are handing down to their children. Marzia’s cheesemaking is very similar to Vitalina’s method, although the small differences are interesting to note.
However, the highlight of our visit is the family dinner. With 12 to 15 of us around the dining table and almost all the ingredients coming from the farm, it must be very similar to Sunday lunches of the past when extended families gathered for a special meal.
Sunday 10 May
We’re driving up to Daniela Pagliai’s alpine pastures at Agriturismo Taufi. She and her husband Walter still do the seasonal transhumance, taking their cows on the 3-hour walk up the mountain where they are outdoors in lush alpine meadows. I take you to Daniela partly because her dairy is a good example of a small modern one, in contrast to Vitalina’s and Marzia’s traditional ones, modernised only enough to meet current health and safety standards. Another reason is that, probably like many of you, she makes a number of different cheeses, and you learn the technique of making several types from a single pot of milk.
Lastly, most of her cheeses are excellent, but as she serenely admits, she makes lots of mistakes—bitter, cracked, mould, cheese mites. There’s no better way to learn about defects than to see and taste them for yourself. One big lesson is that cheese requires concentration, and if you want to produce consistently good cheese, it’s advisable not to make 10 types of cheese, butter, yoghurt and gelato as well as having 30 cows, three children, a farmshop and an agriturismo.
Daniela's dairy is at Melo at 1007 metres (3304 feet) above sea level. Now we ascend to the alpine pastures at 1231 metres (4039 feet) for lunch. We're just in time to catch the cows (and one goat) coming to the milking parlour. Click the picture below to view the video.
On Sunday late afternoon Maria delivers two presentations, one on defects that might occur in Tuscan cheeses and the other, more light-heartedly, on how to compose a good cheese board. I’d like to tell you a little about Maria because she’s quite an expert on cheese and wine, and is a warm generous person as well. She lives a little south of Paestum in Salerno Province in the region of Campania (Naples is the capital). She studied agronomy at university and got her doctorate in environmental and territorial research, but gradually segued into teaching in the fields of cheese and wine. She’s the national vice-president of ONAF. ONAF stands for Organizzazione Nazionale degli Assagiatori di Formaggio, which translates literally as the National Organisation of Tasters of Cheese. But ’tasters' doesn’t convey the range and depth of knowledge its members must have. They must know the details of the vast range of cheeses made in Italy (officially 487), about the procedures for making and maturing them and the legislation (both Italian and European) governing the cheese industry. They constantly visit dairies in all parts of the country. Some of the members are top consultants on cheese production and ageing. In addition, they determine the methodology for tasting cheese and set the criteria for judging the visual, tactile, olfactory and flavour properties of cheeses. As if this weren’t enough, she has an equal expertise in the field of wine. We’re very privileged to have her as our instructor!
Monday 11 May
We’re having lunch at Il Prisco, one of the three restaurants belonging to Agriturismo Venturo where I base part of my Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany. This morning on the virtual Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course I took you to Caseificio Bertagni in the Garfagnana. Verano’s dairy is the largest we visit on the course, but is by no means industrial.
Verano’s family has always made cheese, first on their farm and now in this purpose-built dairy. Verano’s experience is vast, and so far, he has answered satisfactorily every question participants on the course have thrown at him. Verano collects cow, sheep and goat milk from small farms in the territory surrounding his dairy. He knows the farmers personally and knows whose milk he can trust for his raw milk cheeses and which he has to pasteurise.
He has a lab and shows you how to test the milk. He’s the only person we visit who uses starter cultures, but they’re selected strains from the Garfagnana. He understands the differences between mesophyllic and thermophilic bacteria and when to use them. We watch him make a pot of cheese and then ricotta.
Next we go to the maturing room.
Finally we get to taste the cheese. I'm interested in whether you think the larger production has compromised flavour.
The main course ends after lunch. For those of you who chose to come on the one-day extension to a Parmigiano Reggiano dairy, we’re off on a scenic drive to Modena Province on the other side of the Apennine Mountains.
Tuesday 12 May
We’re on the extension trip to the Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course, and we’re at Caseificio Sociale Santa Rita Bio. They’re a group of organic dairy farmers who rear both the ubiquitous black and white Friesians plus the nearly extinct native white modenese cow. The latter give only 9–12 litres of milk per day (1/4 the yield of Friesians), and the group produces just two wheels of parmigiano a day. We’re at a large dairy where Santa Rita Bio have six pots dedicated to their organic cheese. I’m partial to small producers, but I changed my mind when I visited.
Here, new pots of parmigiano are started at intervals throughout the morning to allow three people to perform all the crucial production steps, which means we get to see everything from adding the whey starter to putting the curd in moulds and the salting.
Parmigiano is made from the unpasteurised partially skimmed milk of the evening milking and the whole milk of the morning milking. The pots are traditional un-tinned copper. You notice immediately they're so tall that they have to be sunk into the floor to be at a comfortable level for the cheesemakers. This is a world away from the cheesemakers you visited during the main course.
Everything is tightly controlled by the DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) ‘police’, and you can’t call your cheese Parmigiano Reggiano DOP until it's branded by the Consortium when it's 12 months old. The experience of tasting the parmigiano made with the modenese cow milk matches the excitement of watching it being made. I thought the 10-year-old one would be dry and strong, but it was moist with a complex flavour beyond any cheese I’ve ever tasted (and that’s a lot). Not to be missed!
After our virtual visit to the parmigiano dairy the virtual cheese course is over. I just wanted to include one extra photo. If you’re a cheesemaker, you probably know David Asher’s indispensable book The Art of Natural Cheesemaking and his The Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking. David came to visit me and I took him to Vitalina’s and another cheesemaker so far up a mountain that I can’t include it in the course. As he was leaving, he said he'd seen enough to write another chapter for his book. I was so proud of my cheesemakers!
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