On our day out up in Val Germansca not too long ago, we stopped by to visit some organic cheese producers whose cheese we had reveled in and were delighted to find they were so very local. The sheep cheese that we had was smooth and tasty with just enough of a bite to make it memorable and worth seeking out.
I find it comforting that Italy still clings to the old ways of lovingly looking after their farm animals and producing traditional foods with integrity and flavor that only small production can produce. It helps that the sheep, goats and cows spend their summer high up in the alps, with their farmer or shepherd grazing on alpine grass and wildflowers that imparts a unique flavor and character to alpeggio, (pasture) cheese.
As the snow recedes from the peaks of the entire stretch of Europe's alps, farmers take their animals up to feed on natures gift of grass and spend the summer away from home giving new meaning to the saying "when the cows come home". It's a time honored tradition here too that seems to be gaining popularity again as people turn to the former old ways in an attempt to create work and a livelihood in these uncertain times.
I have worked throughout the alps in not only Italy, but also Austria, Slovenia and Switzerland and there is nothing quite like coming across a herd of sheep or cows with the tinkling bells letting the shepherd know where his herd has wandered off to and then finding where they are making the cheese or serving it for a welcome treat of fresh made cheese. I have enjoyed this experience on many occasions and it never fails to impress me. The setting, the animals, the life of the shepherd, the work of milking and making cheese away from the farm. It's all quite fascinating.
These folks are part of a cooperative of farmers who have pooled their resources together to build a couple of different "caseifici"or alpine dairies where they are able to bring their animals to the mountain meadows graze them on the grass while it lasts and milk them daily and then produce their cheese all in a sanitary environment. Some of the places I worked, they milked the cows and carried the milk in large containers down to the dairy every day in order to not have their hard work go in vain, as there wasn't any sign of electricity in the high country. Quite a feat indeed.
This dairy in Val Germansca and the other they built in upper Chisone was quite a slick operation. The sheep had plenty of room to graze all day and when it came to that time of the day time to be milked the sheep were lining up practically stepping all over each other to get into the milking stall as quick as they could. The shepherd opened the gate and in they trotted single file. Then I realized the why of their eagerness. There was food for them to eat while the shepherd hooked them up to the milking machine and eased the milky burdened mamas of their pay load. Then off they scampered to continue the cycle of eating and bleating in the the mountains of their summer home.
The shepherds wife then had her work cut out for here to heat up all the collected milk and do her magic to produce the oh so tasty,Toma di pecora cheese that we had enjoyed before.
It is a modest and clean operation in a setting that was pleasantly tranquil.
Not baaad work if you can get it.