Swiss Family's Pecorino Cheese at Pienza
I have often wondered how the Pecorino cheese was actually produced, and took the opportunity of joining a slow food tour organised by Lucia Norrito, for a personal insight at a small family-run farm situated between Pienza and Montepulciano, Tuscany. I learnt also, that this is no ordinary farming family, but a family who, 20 years ago, came to Tuscany from Switzerland to commence a new life in organic farming. It was by no means easy. But eventually, after battling through the necessary paperwork required, they have achieved their goals and are now proudly producing many organic products. The creamery has been running for five years now, and one of the cheeses made here is the well-loved Pecorino cheese from Pienza. (Other well-known Pecorino cheeses are, Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Sardo and Pecorino Siciliano). For those not familiar with this cheese, it's produced from sheep's milk, and Ulisse, having been used to cheese production in Switzerland using raw milk, prefers to continue this way. Almost all other Pecorino cheese available to purchase is produced from pasteurised milk. Quite possibly, the fact that the milk is not pasteurised may put you off, but you needn't let it. Providing the animals graze on good land, are kept clean and healthy, the dairy or creamery is clean and the food products handled correctly and hygienically, there should be no source for concern. However, pregnant women and people with a poor immune system should avoid raw milk and raw milk products.
The family along with five sons, sheep, goats, cows, bees, working shepherd dogs, cats, peacocks and a donkey, reside
at the Podere Il Casale, a 300 year old farmhouse sitting amongst 60 hectares of land overlooking the Val d'Orcia and Monte Amiata. You couldn't find more organic cheese if you tried. The 150 sheep happily graze on the chemical-free land and its produce, as well as breathing in non-toxic, fume free air! In fact, Ulisse informs us that he ensures the well being of his sheep through a homeopathic vet and only treats the animals when absolutely vital with homeopathic medicines and not antibiotics.
Ulisse, dressed in his spotless white cheese-making clothes welcomed us into his equally spotlessly clean dairy. He couldn't wait to show and explain a cheese making process, but on a slightly smaller scale than usual. Ulisse warmed the sheep's milk to a particular temperature to increase the acidification, which in turn produces the bacteria essential for cheese making. Rennet, an important ingredient, is then added and heated gently to balance the bacteria. The enzymes from the rennet cause a coagulation process ensuring a digestible substance. At this point we could see a separation taking place between the curds and whey. Now, there are two separate proteins. There is a choice of natural rennets for example, goat, which is strong and usually put with goat milk, calf, or even vegetable rennet from the flowers of cardoon (also known as artichoke thistle). This rennet would be particularly suitable for vegetarians. Today, Ulisse chose to use calf rennet with the sheep's milk.
Curds are also known to many as junket. Centuries ago, people in parts of England were giving junket sweetened with honey or sugar and vanilla to ill or convalescing children because it was sweet and easy to digest. During the 1900's, people of some areas of the United States of America did this also. It is thought that the word 'junket' derives from a Middle English word 'jonket' meaning a rush basket used to aid the draining of puddings and cheeses.
The curds forming were gently divided into pieces as Ulisse cut through them. The longer the curds remain warming, the sourer the cheese will become. We watched as he carefully collected up the delicately soft, crumbly looking cheese to fill special plastic forms he then put aside allowing each one to rest and drain. The whey will naturally be pushed out as acidity takes place. (To some people, the appearance of the cheese at this stage has the similarity of 'cottage cheese'.) This cheese will either be served very fresh and soft, or, will be prepared for maturing.
The whey remaining was now being reheated to another specific temperature and citric acid added. Literally, developing in front of our eyes was the popular Ricotta, and, to most people is a type of cheese. In fact it isn't a cheese, but a product produced from a cheese-making procedure. We could see exactly why it is called Ricotta. Its significance is 're-cooked'. (Apparently some industries produce beauty creams using whey, obviously taking advantage of the protein.)
From the huge refrigerated cheese stores, we were shown various wheels (or rounds as known to some) of Pecorino, each at different stages of maturing and each with different rinds, depending on what Ulisse used to create the all-important mould for preservation, eventually producing a particular flavour. The cheeses initially had 20 hours rest before being washed with salted water to build up the rind. (Salt dries out the surface, creating the rind). Some cheeses were being matured in ash whilst others were wrapped in straw and maturing in clay pots, all developing a unique taste. The wheels of cheese are turned occasionally. The fresh cheese is less than 2 months old, semi-matured is between 2 and 4 months and the matured is 4 months and over. The longer matured, the harder and more crumbly the cheese becomes with a stronger taste, whilst the younger cheese has a softer texture and creamier taste.
The Pecorino cheese from Ulisse is unique. He never adjusts the flavours of the cheese to make them rigidly uniform in taste like the large producers. It's adjusted naturally, depending on where the sheep feed and roam and whether the milks produced in spring or during other times of the year. Therefore the cheese will vary slightly with the seasons. During the busy milking period, the sheep are milked every 12 hours to stimulate milk production. Enquiring on the milking times, Ulisse responded that he likes to milk at six in the morning and again at six in the evening before he helps with the cooking! He also insists that his sheep take rests from producing milk and let nature take its course. Therefore the sheep take well earned time off whilst the 'fans' of Pecorino cheese eagerly await the next available milk.
Towards the end of our visit, we were taken to the farmhouse and guided to an old long wooden table made ready by his wife Sandra, for us to sit and enjoy sampling the farm's organic wine, bread and of course, the cheeses. It was an interesting experience to be able to taste the differences between various ages of Pecorino, from the very young to the matured, and tasting each with a choice of a little complement of honey, onion 'relish', sweet 'relish' or a mustard. A plate of this morning's fresh white cheese was delivered to the table. Sprinkled with a little seasoning, it was gloriously soft and light. Now you can't get fresher than that! It's actually difficult to believe that Ulisse had said he'd made awful cheese at school!
He told us a little story. Some years ago when he and his wife were ready to produce raw sheep's milk cheese, they ventured into an official office and with 'sketchy' Italian language sought to get the 'go ahead'. The woman behind the desk put her head in her hands. This bureaucratic office didn't want any more paperwork, didn't want any more farms trying to do this and to do that, raw milk is dangerous, and strangely, it was forbidden to milk by hand, even though for centuries it's what we did. Ten years later, Ulisse and his wife returned to the same office and discovered the same woman, each recognising one another. Time and regulations have moved on into the 21st century and improved. The 'go ahead' eagerly awaited was finally granted. And, the same woman to this day helps keeps check on the analysis of bacteria.
Ulisse does not want to pasteurise the milk, which means losing the vital vitamins and minerals. He wants to bring all the
goodness directly from the milk to the cheese. And, by being an organic farm, he knows exactly where everything derives from and what is used before it reaches the table of his family, guests and those purchasing the products. He maintains a careful routine with the creamery. For example, to avoid the danger of bacteria contamination, the milking is done by hand, not machine, where the pipes can be difficult to clean thoroughly and there's no lorry transportation from farm to creamery. If he doesn't use the milk straight after milking, it goes immediately into the fridge. He must demonstrate that the milk is clean whereby samples are taken twice monthly for analysis. It is permitted to have up to 500,000 bacteria per one ml of milk to make raw sheep's milk cheese. Anything over must be pasteurised. (In comparison, for raw cow's milk, the bacteria must not exceed 250,000). There are many tests and checks including the fact that even the wall tiles inside the creamery are analysed for any bacteria.
Prior to the industrial revolution of the 1700 - 1800's, raw milk was all we consumed, risking serious bacterial infections to be passed from the milk. It was therefore considered dangerous to use raw milk so once the pasteurisation process was introduced, many consumers turned to this. These days, because technology is so much more advanced and stringent controls are in place on the checking of quantities of bacteria present, this has paved the way ahead for those looking to produce raw milk cheese and for those looking to enjoy the end product.
Ulisse and his family are supporters of 'Slow Food'. This term is gradually spreading from country to country, where the importance of 'Slow Food' is now being realised as opposed to the 'fast food' we are all aware of. The organisation Slow Food originating from Italy in 1986 reminds us of the necessity of keeping a country's traditional food and cultural heritage alive. I would like to thank Lucia Norrito for allowing me to join her group.