Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Pecorino Di Pienza

When most people think of pecorino cheese, they think of pecorino romano, the sharp cheese from the region of Lazio that’s grated over pasta. But there are plenty of other places throughout Italy where pecorino cheese is made, and I visited two of them recently, one in Sicily and one in Tuscany. This post focuses on one artisanal maker of pecorino di Pienza – Giancarlo Più – in the beautiful region of Tuscany, near Mont’Amiata. (Photo below by Ben Morse)

The name pecorino derives from the word pecora in Italian, which means sheep. And Giancarlo, owner of caseificio Più, has plenty of them – 1,300 in fact, amid 300 acres of beautiful rolling pasture and farm lands.

He’s got sheepdogs too, but they’re not really there to guard the sheep, so much as to provide an early warning signal if other animals, like wild boar or foxes threaten the flock. (Photo by Ron DeCicco)

The sheep are divided into groups, and are shifted to various pastures on the property in order to graze. In the colder months, when fresh forage is not available, Giancarlo feeds them various grains such as corn and barley that were harvested earlier in the year. The sheep are milked twice a day, using modern milking machines, and about 650 liters are collected each day.

In order to produce one kilo of cheese, it takes anywhere from 4 to 9 liters of milk, Giancarlo said. Nursing mothers and newborn babies are kept together for about a month, and their milk is not used for cheese, since it contains a high percentage of colostrum, the milk that is nutritious for newborn lambs. 

Giancarlo demonstrated how the cheese is made. First, a type of rennet is added (typically made from a young calf’s stomach), to help coagulate the milk. The milk is heated at a temperature of about 36 degrees centigrade, and after about 20 minutes, it starts to gel. At this point, it has a mild, milky flavor, like unsweetened panna cotta. It normally gets heated longer than 20 minutes, but Giancarlo wanted to demonstrate the process for us, so he started breaking up the gelled milk into curds. To make a softer, fresh type of cheese, he makes large cuts.

For an aged cheese, the cuts are much smaller, almost the size of grains of rice. The larger cuts retain more of the liquid (or whey) which is good for soft cheeses. But an aged cheese needs to release a lot of water so it doesn’t spoil before it’s ready to be eaten.

The curdled milk is poured into plastic forms (reed baskets were traditionally used), and the liquid that remains behind – the whey – is used to make ricotta cheese.

The first cheese that is formed is simply called the “cagliata semplice” and is without salt. It tastes very mild and can be eaten out of hand or used in recipes, including the one at the end of this blog post.

The cheeses are then salted and left to age, some for only a week, and others for as long as a year. The cheese tastes different each time he makes it because of all the variables, whether it’s the type of grass the sheep eat, or how soon the ewes have given birth. A ewe’s milk becomes richer and more filled with fat, the farther away from giving birth she is, leading to a more flavorful cheese.

“That’s the beauty of a small cheese producer,” said Giancarlo, in rapid-fire Italian. “You should have a surprise in your mouth every time you bite into a piece of cheese.”

And what surprises were in store for us, as Giancarlo and his wife Sabrina provided us with an unforgettable afternoon of cheese tasting, accompanied by homemade salumi and pane carasau, or carta di musica (the flatbread of Sardinia), along with Sardinian wines and beer.
Giancarlo instructed us to start with the youngest cheese, to take it in our hands, and sniff it, then to break it in half and smell it again.
It should give you an emotion every time you eat a piece of cheese, he said. “È una materiale viva. Ti può anche disturbare!” He said, explaining that it’s a living material that can even give you a “disturbing” sensation.
Almost all the cheesemakers in this part of Tuscany are originally from Sardinia, he said, an island which also has a rich history of cheesemaking. Many Sardinians arrived in Tuscany during the 1950s and 1960s. “Sardinians found exceptional pasture lands and knew how to make the most of them,” he said. His parents emigrated from Sardinia about 20 years ago, he said.

Giancarlo was clearly smitten with farming in general, and showed us around the rest of the property, where he kept lots of other animals, including these cinta senese, the special breed of black pig with a stripe, used for making top quality prosciutto and other kinds of salumi, including those we sampled with Giancarlo.
Just a few days earlier, a litter of baby pigs had been born, and Giancarlo let us hold the little sweeties, much to the delight of my daughter-in-law, Beth.
My niece’s daughter Emilia, in the arms of my son Michael, was a little skeptical of the baby goats at first, but quickly warmed to their presence.
Two of the animals with less than friendly appeal were these wild boar, although their appearance on Tuscan menus sure kept our interest.

We had such a fun-filled day and learned so much about not only cheese-making, but cheese tasting. The memories of this unforgettable experience will stay with us forever. Grazie mille, Giancarlo e Sabrina.

And now for a recipe using some of that cheese. This recipe is made with the unsalted fresh sheep’s milk cheese, or cagliata semplice – not easy to find where I live, and maybe not where you live either. It is similar in taste and texture to Greek halloumi cheese, which you should have no trouble finding. The recipe is from my week long stay at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily earlier this year, where chef Michael Sampson prepared these for us with the cheese from a local caseificio. Don’t dismiss this idea if you don’t think you like anchovies. It will convert you, I promise. They’re easy to make and will disappear in a flash. Just take some good bread and slice it, then place a slice of cheese (halloumi works fine if you don’t have fresh sheep’s milk cheese). Add a sliver of anchovy, a sprinkle of oregano and a drizzle of olive oil. Bake in a very hot oven (425 degrees) for a few minutes until cheese is melted and edges of bread are toasted.

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