Going to the Source for a Sacred Italian Cheese

Going to the Source for a Sacred Italian Cheese


I’m not saying I drank too much Brunello di Montalcino. But if I had drunk too much Brunello di Montalcino — the Podere Le Ripi 2014, for example, at, say, 2 a.m. — then a hot, dusty barn packed with sheep wouldn’t have been my first choice of places to be at 6 in the morning.

Yet there I was, surrounded by a hundred little animals, white wool coats matted down with hay and dirt, making small, timid bleats as they trotted past me up the ramp to the milking station. As the sun rose, rivers of dust filled shafts of light; you could sense the day was going to be scalding by breakfast. But for now, in the barn, it was bearable — just me, a pretty young farmer named Giulia, and a herd of sheep ready to be milked.

I was at Podere Il Casale, an organic farm outside the tiny Renaissance-era Tuscan town of Pienza, to educate myself on the intricacies of the town’s most famous commodity, pecorino di Pienza. You have likely heard of pecorino — but the town, not so much. Outside of Tuscany, it’s possible the only place you would hear the word Pienza is at a gourmet cheese counter.

Caseificio Piu, an organic farm in Pienza, is home to 1,400 sheep — and some of the most celebrated pecorino di Pienza.CreditSusan Wright for The New York Times

“Pecorino is poorly understood,” said Matthew Rubiner, the owner of Rubiner’s Cheesemongers & Grocers in Great Barrington, Mass., and a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things cheese. “People assume all pecorino is Pecorino Romano — which is very salty and more of a cooking cheese. But that image is seared into the minds of even my most food-conscious customers. So I don’t call it pecorino — I say it’s a sheep milk cheese from Italy. And as soon as we stock it, we sell out.”

Standing there watching a steel device milk the sheep, I didn’t consider myself one of the people Mr. Rubiner was talking about. I spend part of every evening eating cheese. I’ve sampled hundreds in my life. But I would learn my palate is not a sophisticated one. I would learn my palate is akin to a kindergartner. With a head cold.

“To make a great pecorino, you must know what your sheep eat, how they live,” explained Giancarlo Floris a few days later. Mr. Floris is the owner of Caseificio Piu, another organic farm, home to 1,400 sheep, and some of the most celebrated pecorino di Pienza. He moved to Tuscany from Sardinia when he was only 18. “Half of my sheep eat wild herbs; their milk is very strong. Half eat planted grains so their cheese tastes softer. A great pecorino should always taste different.”

Antonio Floris applies tomato concentrate as an anti-mold agent, at Caseificio Piu.CreditSusan Wright for The New York Times

Mr. Floris, a bald man with the trademark tan of a farmer, a thick black goatee, and a curiously crisp white T-shirt, led us to the highest point on his farm. The Val d’Orcia, which cuts through the southern half of Tuscany, unfurled before us like an endless straw blanket, crunchy and suffocating in the summer heat. In the distance, fields punctuated with freshly baled hay, orchards of olive trees, and growling tractors churning up the land, filling the air with dust, turning light to haze. Despite all the glossy marketing of recent years, Tuscany is, first and foremost, farm country.

“Fifty years ago no one wanted to be in the Val d’Orcia,” said Paolo Coluccio, a renowned chef and the owner of Gusto E Evoluto, a company that organizes tastings and culinary tours. He had brought me to Caseificio Piu to introduce me to one of his favorite cheese producers.

Mr. Coluccio offered some background: In the 1960s, young Italians left here to get jobs in the cities; large swaths of southern Tuscany were effectively abandoned. Meanwhile, Sardinia was teeming with farmers. The Italian government offered huge Tuscan parcels to Sardinians for almost nothing. In exchange, the Sardinians, like Mr. Floris and his father, brought their skills — and their sheep — and began working the land.

I asked Mr. Floris how many pecorino producers there are in the Val d’Orcia. He started counting on his hand. “Twelve,” he said, pausing. “But maybe 20.”

Marusco e Maria Enoteca in Pienza is the best cheese shop in a town of cheese shops.CreditSusan Wright for The New York Times

The Val d’Orcia, a Unesco Heritage Site, is Tuscany at its Tuscaniest. I started coming here in 2004 — at first with my boyfriend, and many more times once he became my husband, and then with our children. In the last 14 years, I’ve seen changes. Design hotels, Michelin-rated restaurants, high thread counts — the Val d’Orcia has become a place people (like me) come to get married or go on their honeymoon or go truffle hunting. In fact, while I standing on this hill, Edward Norton was likely asleep at his villa — he was staying one hill over from us. And Wes Anderson was renting the palazzo at the bottom of our dirt road. That’s Pienza now: equal parts Edward Norton and sheep.

According to the farmers I met, the secret to their product is the unique combination of Sardinian sheep and Tuscan grass: wild fennel, clover and “these pastures are full of absinthe,” one farmer told me with a wink, referring to wormwood, the infamous herb that is a primary ingredient of the liquor.

“Maybe you love it, maybe you hate it, but pecorino should always surprise you,” Mr. Floris told me. “Supermarket cheese will never surprise you.”

We had moved into the tasting room. Mr. Floris was slicing off pieces of a pecorino stagionato — pecorino di Pienza aged at least six months. It was salty and earthy, delicately crumbly — and served by a passionate, fast-talking man who revered the process of making this cheese as much as its history. I may have been eating the perfect food.

A dish of pecorino cheese pairings at La Bandita.CreditSusan Wright for The New York Times

Unlike Parmigiano-Reggiano or mozzarella di bufala, pecorino di Pienza does not have its own D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Protected Designation of Origin), and is therefore not protected. In other words, any sheep cheese made nearby can be labeled pecorino di Pienza.

“There are about 3,000 sheep in Pienza,” said Mr. Coluccio, a handsome man with an easy smile. “You would need three million to account for all the cheese that calls itself pecorino di Pienza.”

To understand pecorino di Pienza, to respect it, I had to visit an uncomfortable place that sounded like a Lemony Snicket book: La Camera Calda — the Hot Room. This is where the whey drains from the curd — a place as humid as the Amazon and fetid as, well, old milk. A place that smells like something horrible happened. A place no one (who wants to love cheese in ignorance) should ever have to visit.

La Camera Calda in question is inside a dairy belonging to Silvana Cugusi. As clean and well-lit as an operating room — I had to wear blue paper slippers over my sneakers — it was filled with plastic vats of what would become pecorino di Pienza. Some would be rubbed with ash, some covered in straw, some pressed with tomatoes. The pecorino fresco would remain pure and young, while the larger wheels would become the pride of the dairy, the gran riserva — aged anywhere from six months to (albeit rarely) as long as two years.

The cypress-dappled landscape around Pienza.CreditSusan Wright for The New York Times

I held my breath the whole time.

Blessedly, moments later we continued the tour — first to La Camera Freda, where the cheese is dried, then to the cantina, the cave in which it is aged.

“A good pecorino should be sweet even if it’s mature,” said Gian Maria Menta, the owner of Romeo Formaggi di Menta Gian Maria e Gionata, a famous cheese store in Piombino, who had come with me to the farm. Mr. Menta and I walked through the dank cantina of Cugusi, past shelves of gran riserva, which are turned twice a day to prevent mold.

“We don’t want to get bigger,” Ms. Cugusi said. “We want to make a quality pecorino.” To these artisanal farmers, the two are mutually exclusive. “My father moved his family here in 1962. The Val d’Orcia has gotten richer but the environment hasn’t changed — we protect the land, we don’t use chemicals, the shepherds respect the countryside.”

My 6-year-old son has inherited (or perhaps absorbed) my love of cheese. I have seen him turn spaghetti away when he sensed the parmesan was not Parmigiano-Reggiano. I have seen him correct the arrangement of a cheese tray. So when I was invited to a pecorino tasting at my favorite hotel in the valley, I brought Finn.

“We will move from light to heavy, sweet to spicy,” explained Dario Ferreri, the chef at La Bandita. “This is not a cheese tasting.” Finn and I looked at each other, somewhat befuddled. “We must think of what happened to make this cheese,” Mr. Ferreri said dramatically. “We must think of the story that it tells. This will be our journey through the valley.”

We began our odyssey with pecorino fresco paired with vin santo jam. Then pecorino with saffron, drizzles of local honey, aged pecorino wrapped in walnut leaves, Tropean onion preserve, green tomato mostarda, and on and on.

The trick to finding your pecorino soul mate: “You try and you try and you taste and you taste and then you arrive at the right match and it’s BOOOOOM!” Mr. Ferreri threw out his hands like there was a stick of dynamite in his mouth. (My explosion was the pecorino crusca, with hops jam; Finn’s was the pecorino staginato and fig preserve.)

As in any industry, there is competition — but not between the farmers.

“The French sheep are a problem,” said Michael Schmidig, the son of a local farmer, talking about another breed that has showed up in the valley recently. “They produce three liters of milk a day. They eat grain and live in a barn. Sardinian sheep produce one liter. They eat grass, they need fences. The French sheep milk is not nearly as good, but you don’t have the problem with wolves.”

“The amazing part of Pienza is that this valley has very poor soil,” said Ulisse Braendli, the owner of Podere Il Casale, where I’d watched the milking. “And a suffering plant has to work harder; it will give you more flavor. This valley is full of suffering herbs.”

Mr. Braendli moved here from Zurich in 1991 and has been making pecorino di Pienza since 2003. (“Let’s say it wasn’t so legal before that.”)

At the Cugusi dairy, making what will become pecorino di Pienza. CreditSusan Wright for The New York Times

“The first 10 years were so different,” he said. A good decade before the rest of the world was talking about farm-to-table, Mr. Braendli dreamed of agrarian utopia — a farm in which he sourced all his own food and wine. “I’m a shepherd,” he said. “There are not many of us left.”

I asked him if the unseasonably hot summer had any effect on his trade. “The plants are going crazy; they don’t know what’s happening. When a clover has made a flower, the pasture is over — it’s the end of the season. Our clovers bloom at the end of May. But because of the change in climate our clovers are blooming a month earlier. And now we have hail. We never had hail before.”

It’s a jolt for a cheese that is “one of the oldest in the world,” Mr. Rubiner told me. “What makes this cheese so special is that it’s impossible to replicate elsewhere. Pecorino di Pienza is sweet and complex and it’s reinforced by the emotional attachment to the beautiful place it comes from. It has a story.”

It’s the story of an ancient cheese made by people from another place. Cheese that has been produced the same way for thousands of years. But that may not always be the case. The climate is changing. The big factories are moving in.

And the French sheep are coming.


If You Go

FARMS

Podere Il Casale. Among the first in the area to make pecorino di Pienza, Podere Il Casale is an organic farm-to-table restaurant and campground that also offers cooking classes. (Podere Il Casale, 64; www.podereilcasale.com; 39-0578-755109).

Caseficio Piu. A working pecorino farm with some of the best views in the Val d’Orcia. Call ahead and ask Giancarlo Floris to organize a tasting. (Podere Casaloni, Sarteano; piuzzo1974@hotmail.it; 39-0578-075129 or 39-347-8844288).

Cugusi di Cugusi Silvana. A farm, dairy, and shop, Silvana Cugusi makes some of the most formidable pecorino in the valley. (Via della Boccia, 8; caseificiocugusi.it; 39-0578-757558).

Fattoria Pianporcino. Order a variety from the farm’s shop and let the owners make all the decisions for you. (Loc. Pianporcino, 109; fattoriapianporcino.it; 39-347-911-7382).

RESTAURANTS

Osteria La Porta. If you can’t get a table on the terrace, don’t worry. The pecorino cacio e pepe is every bit as warm and gooey and satisfying if you sit inside. (Via S. Luigi, 3, Monticchiello; lacantina@osterialaporta.it; 39-0578-755170).

La Bandita Countryhouse. The chef is a local boy who loves nothing more than pairing cheese with the perfect preserve — and explaining the provenance of each. (Podere La Bandita; la-bandita.com; 39-333-404-6704).

Gusto E Evoluto. Paolo Coluccio is a private chef who will arrange tastings, cooking classes, private dinners, or anything else you want that involves delicious local food. (gustoevoluto.com; 39-349-123-6226).

Oreade Ristorante. Perched on the hilltop hamlet of Catiglioncello del Trinoro, Oreade is as impressive for its views as it is for its organic, farm-to-table menu. (monteverdituscany.com; 39-0578-268-146).

SHOPs

Marusco e Maria Enoteca. The best cheese shop in a town of cheese shops — make it your last stop out of town. Pick out a few wheels and have them vacuum sealed for the trip home. Ask nicely and the owner will show you the pecorino cantina. (Corso Rossellino, 21; damaruscoemaria@virgilio.it; 39-0578-748222).



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