Crocus Sativus: the flower that brings us saffron
Piero and Raffa planted saffron crocuses (Crocus sativus) last year as part of a trial program sponsored by the local government to determine whether Piedmont could produce salable saffron. They had a very successful harvest and the saffron received a top grade by analysts. Although the quality is high, frequent fall rains in the region will make it difficult to rely on successful harvests. Even so, most of last year’s crocuses are coming back up now. The purple flowers are very delicate and must be picked immediately after they open, or they will decay and the saffron will be lost. Each crocus has three thread-like stigmas, which are the saffron itself. They must be removed carefully by hand from each flower: no automated process can handle this delicate job. After the threads are picked, they must be dried, a process that converts the stigmas’ fresh floral/grassy scent to the famous perfume of the spice. Because collecting saffron requires so much painstaking labor and yields of the delicate threads are small, saffron remains one of the most expensive spices by weight. Vanessa and I have spent some lazy afternoons at the kitchen table with a basket of the morning’s collection of crocuses in front of us, taking one flower at a time, pulling apart its petals and plucking the saffron threads out.
Andrea, Elena, and Vanessa a tavola
I haven’t seen Andrea in four years. We met five years ago while working on a farm in Tuscany together and quickly became friends. Andrea’s story is that he grew up in Aosta, the largest city in Valle d’Aosta, and was on track to become a career banker. Trimmed hair, glasses, a suit, working at the bank every day: that was his life in a nutshell. Shortly after he turned thirty he decided that such a life was unbearable. He grew out his hair, lost the glasses, wore shaggy clothes, adorned himself with leather and seashell bracelets/necklaces/anklets, left a long-term girlfriend, quit his job, and took off for a new job dressing up as Goofy at Euro Disney. After Disney, he flew to New Zealand to work on farms, then spent some time in East Asia before returning to his native Italy for more farm experience. After he and I met I would email him from time to time and invariably find him in a different part of the world living another adventure: walking across Spain on el Camino de Santiago; biking from his home in Aosta to Holland and then back, sleeping along the road or in barns; doing charity work in West Africa.
Now Andrea is back in Aosta, about as settled as is possible for such a free spirit, and currently planning his next trip to China and India. I’m lucky to have caught him here at all. He and his friend Elena cooked up a welcome dinner, and I want to share two more specialties from Aosta that were on the table: Lardo and Sanguinaccio.
Delicate slices of Lardo di Arnad, with a drizzle of honey on warm rye bread
Lardo is an Italian specialty that has become increasingly well-known in the United States, often featured in top Italian restaurants. Chefs have half-jokingly renamed it “Prosciutto Bianco” to play down the fact that it is pure pork lard, although lardo is still the name most commonly attached to it. There are two types of lardo that are the most famous in Italy. The first is known as Lardo di Colonnata, which is from Tuscany. It is there that thick slabs of solid pork fat (usually from the back of the pig) are massaged with salt and spices and packed into special marble containers (conche) that come from the same famous quarries in Massa-Carrara that also gave Michelangelo his raw material for sculpting. The second is Lardo di Arnad, which is from Valle d’Aosta. Here the slabs of pork fat are packed into wooden containers (doil) in a salt water solution with aromatic ingredients including sage, rosemary, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and juniper, and left to cure for at least three months. The lardo is sliced very thinly, and one of the best ways to enjoy it is drizzled with a light honey and draped over a piece of warm toast (usually pane nero in Aosta, a rye bread), where the lardo ever so slightly melts.
I don’t know who first thought of combining pork, blood, potato, beet, and spices into a tight little casing, but I’m glad they did
The second specialty from Aosta that Andrea served was a blood sausage called sanguinaccio, also known as boudin. Boudin is a generic French term for sausage, but in Aosta it describes this specific preparation. I’m a blood sausage aficionado, and I become giddy for sanguinaccio, with its characteristic tang and deep purple color. It is made from a combination of ground pork, pork blood, pureed potatoes, red beets, and seasonings.
Andrea and Elena’s dinner provided enough fuel for our hike the next day high up to the abandoned Colonna mine (2400 meter altitude) in the Gran Paradiso national park. According to Andrea, the mine once housed thousands of workers, who would live in the mountain-top facility for months on end, sending down loads of iron ore from deep inside the mountain to the valley below on a sled/cable system. Abandoned since 1979, the mine is in ruins and access is technically prohibited because of the dangerous conditions. Against better judgment, we entered the mine facility and took a careful walk around. The deteriorating interior, with dark passages, rusted lockers, crumbling walls and collapsed staircases looked like something straight out of a horror film. Fifty year old records of shifts worked and sick days taken were strewn about the floor of one room, an old forgotten shoe in another. The mine even had its own chapel, bare of everything except a large fresco of Christ. The mines themselves were locked shut with solid iron gates, and the only suggestion of their depths was a chill air that hung at the threshold.
Mont Blanc, Europe’s tallest peak, and the border between France and Italy, is visible in the distance
Alpine peaks seen through empty panes in the mine’s dining hall
Sunlight on the dining hall wall
Andrea and Vanessa stand in front of a mine entry-point
The mine facility from outside
Vanessa enjoys the crisp air and view from Piero and Raffa’s porch
Vanessa and I have completed our crash course in shepherding and returned to the north of Italy. We have a few days to kill before the start of Slow Food’s biennial Terra Madre event in Torino, so we have taken advantage of the time to drive north with Piero to the Italian Alps, a region called Valle d’Aosta. Piero and Raffa have a mountain house there and Piero has to shut off the water before the first freezing temperatures break the pipes. This is a side trip I had been hoping to make because a good friend of mine, Andrea, who I haven’t seen in years, lives in Aosta city.
Valle d’Aosta, an arrestingly beautiful region, is filled with gastronomic treasures. On our way up to the mountain house, Piero stopped to pick up some treats for an alpine lunch. Included were a glorious chunk of the true fontina cheese (not that nasty impostor produced in other parts of Europe,) fine slices of motsetta (a type of preserved beef), pane nero (a type of rye bread), and a bottle of Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, a white wine from Europe’s highest vineyard.
Lunch: a selection of specialties from Valle d’Aosta
Fontina is probably Valle d’Aosta’s greatest culinary product, known around the world, although often confused with a lesser, industrial version produced in other parts of Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and France. True fontina is made high on the slopes of the Italian Alps from raw milk and has a brushed rind that is always marked with the official “Fontina DOP” mountain logo, and a semi-firm interior. Fake fontina tends to have a waxier rind and is softer; in no way does it compare to the original. The milk comes from a particular breed of cow, known as La Rossa Pezzata, which are native to the region. Every cow in the herd wears a cowbell around its neck, producing melodious chimes as they graze on the mountain grasses.
These rosse pezzate obviously love each other very much
After lunch, we took a stroll along nearby mountain paths, and then Piero returned home to Cascina Piola, dropping us off in Aosta city to spend a few days with Andrea.
Mario and Vanessa lead the sheep along a tratturo
In addition to learning about sheep, shepherding, cheese-making, working farm dogs, and horses, Vanessa and I have been introduced to one of Italy’s most ancient signs of human activity: the Tratturo.
Shepherding in Italy dates to prehistory, and before barns and hay were used to shelter and feed sheep in the winter months it was necessary for the shepherd to migrate with the herd in search of food. In the winter shepherds would descend from the mountains in Abruzzo, central Italy, crossing Molise to the warmer plains of Puglia in the south. As summer heats climbed and the grasses scorched, shepherds would return with their flocks to the cooler northern mountains. The shepherds and their flocks used the tratturos as their passageways. They were massive grassy paths, at times as much as 110 meters wide, the soil compacted from centuries of migrating feet and hooves. There were three main tratturos (the Regio tratturo L’Aquila Foggia, the Regio Tratturo Val di Sangro Foggia, and the Regio Tratturo Pescasseroli Candela), which, when combined with shorter tratturos and the connective branches called tratturellos, formed a route that extended roughly 1,860 kilometers.
The tratturos were used by the Samnites, the ancient inhabitants of southern Italy, who most likely inherited them from prehistory, and in addition to being passageways for migrating shepherds and flocks were also the roads for soldiers and merchants. It has been hypothesized that the great Roman road system may have been at least partially built on top of some already-existing tratturos. The tratturos have been so well worn into the earth that many still exist. We use them to transport Mario and Carmella’s 260 sheep to different fields.
We are some of the only people and animals left to trace those steps of antiquity.
Vanessa and I, dressed in traditional shepherd garb, with Pietro, Mario and Carmella’s son, at a “Save the Tratturo” rally in Campobasso, Molise. The parade landed us on Molise’s regional television news program.
Ricotta is a byproduct of the cheese-making process. The word translates as “re-cooked”, and refers to the re-heating of the remaining whey after the curds have been removed for cheese. Sheep’s milk has a higher fat content than cow’s milk and the same is true of cheese made from whole versions of those milks, but sheep’s milk ricotta has a lower fat content than cow’s milk ricotta. Some producers, in addition to heating, add acid to the whey to aid in the coagulation of the protein. In my experience ricotta made without the addition of acid is superior to that made with it.
This is the process as done by Carmella with the whey from her sheep’s milk:
After making the cheese, Carmella transfers all of the whey into a stainless steel vat. She submerges a large steam pipe (exactly like a giant version of the steaming wand used to froth milk for cappuccino) into the whey and turns the steam on. Carmella carefully monitors its rising temperature. At 80 degrees Celsius she turns the steam off. Protein suspended in the whey coagulates at this point and floats to the surface: this is the ricotta. When she is sure that all of the ricotta has surfaced, Carmella skims it off with extreme gentleness. Too much of a disturbance and the floating mass will sink irretrievably to the bottom of the whey. The ricotta is left to drain in plastic baskets, and according to Carmella is best on its second day.
We scoop large chunks off at mealtime and eat it alone, or with bread, or drizzled with honey as a dessert. The baker in the nearby town has told me that Carmella’s ricotta is the finest she has ever tasted; it is certainly the best I have ever tried.
On our first day on the farm Carmella served us her ricotta at lunch. Trying to be polite Vanessa and I made sure not to eat all of it even though we wanted to. Later that day I looked in the dogs’ food bucket and saw that Carmella had tossed the remainder in. I swear to never let the ricotta go to the dogs again while I am here.
All of this work with the sheep has one main purpose: to produce high-quality milk that will be transformed into pecorino, Italian sheep’s milk cheese. Carmella heads up the cheese-making here at Colavecchio Borraro farm, and she has shown me the process from start to finish. Everything is done under strict standards of cleanliness, which are critical for controlling the quality of the finished cheese.
There are many variables that determine what type of cheese will be made: the amount of rennet added, the temperature of the milk at various stages of the process, the milk itself, the amount of fat left in the milk (from whole to skim, with cream added or, conversely, water), the size of the curd once it is broken, the amount of acidity allowed to develop in the curd as it sits, the size of the cheese, whether or not it is brined, whether or not the rind is washed and if so with what, and the environment where the cheese is aged. These are only a few of the many things that determine the type of cheese to be made. The following is a description of how Carmella makes her pecorino.
First, all of the milk here is raw, meaning it is not pasteurized. The sheep’s varied diet of mountain grasses and plants creates a diverse combination of enzymes in the milk. By leaving the milk raw, these natural enzymes as well as all of the natural bacteria already present will lead to a more complex and flavorful cheese. (Pasteurized milk must have cultures reintroduced to it after pasteurization in order to make cheese, which are never as diverse as those found in raw milk.)
Carmella adds rennet (from the stomach of a ruminant animal) to the milk, causing it to coagulate. Once the milk has coagulated, forming a very delicate block of jellied milk, she takes a utensil that looks like a giant whisk and breaks the coagulated milk up into small rice-grain sized curds. She drains and reserves the whey, from which she will later make ricotta. She then pours the curds into forms, in this case plastic baskets with patterned holes in them, which will allow more whey to drain as the cheeses are pressed and left to sit for a few hours.
Once the cheeses have been pressed, they are submerged in a brine overnight. From there they are moved to the aging room, a special temperature and humidity-controlled cellar, where they are spaced out on on shelves made of wooden slats. The fresh rounds of cheese are white, but within a few days a pinkish bloom begins to appear on the rind. Every few days we must rub all of the cheeses down with an oiled sponge, helping to form the exterior rind and slow down the mold growth and aging processes, which improves the cheese.
Mario and Carmella sell their pecorino at three different ages: fresh, while it is still white and mild in flavor; aged about two months, which they call “abbedecato” and roughly translates as “that which will be something else later, but is good even now before it has reached its destination”; and aged about four months, which is the most pungent and complex in flavor.
There is the custom in Molise, as in other parts of Italy such as Sardinia, to allow small flies to lay their eggs in cracks in the cheese. These eggs hatch into maggots, which eat and transform the cheese into something even more pungent. The cheese is then called “case’ d quagl”, and it is eaten worms and all, a delicacy for those who can stomach it. I was lucky enough to try some of Mario and Carmella’s cheese that had been infested by the worms. “Oh how fortunate you are,” Mario said to me and his young son Pietro, who also had a wormy piece.
Carmella also makes a wonderful runny soft-rind cheese that is their own invention, the serendipitous result of Carmella going into labor halfway through making cheese one day three years ago.
I have accompanied Mario to one of the markets where he sells their cheeses. Elderly men chatting nearby were at first wary of the higher-than-average price Mario charges. They made snide remarks to Mario about the cost of his cheese, but one by one he was able to convince each of them to taste a sample of the cheese. Their expressions changed. “Ah,” one said, “this is like the cheese I used to eat when I was a child.” Then another asked Mario if he had any with worms. “No,” Mario said, “I save that for myself.” Each man walked away with large rounds of cheese, to take home and surprise his wife.
When we are at pasture with the sheep, Vanessa and I have the pleasure of working with Jackie, Mario’s border collie in training. She hasn’t perfected all of her commands, but mostly she gets them right, and makes our job much easier. The commands for collies are all in English (although Mario has inserted a few Italian commands into her skill set). It is a system developed in Scotland and used around the world: from Japan to Argentina, the commands will be the same.
Border Collies are famous for “the eye”, an instinctive glare that intimidates the sheep, which, when combined with a low predatory stance, is particularly frightening to the flock.
Stella, only a few hours after her birth.
Lady, Mario’s pregnant horse, carried me all day yesterday without complaint as we drove the sheep from one field to the next. I even had her at a full gallop at one point. Mario had estimated that she had another five weeks until she was due. His estimate was off: when we walked outside this morning a tiny brown foal was standing beside her. She had been born only a few hours earlier. Some of the placenta was still on the ground and Lady was drenched with sweat. I named the baby Stella (“Star” in Italian) after a small patch of white hair on her forehead.
I spent all of yesterday alone with the sheep at pasture. I rode a pregnant horse named Lady to some of the more distant fields where the sheep had plenty to eat. Mario and Carmella, the sheep’s owners and cheese-makers, do not own the fields where the sheep graze. Instead, they make special arrangements with other farmers and landowners to allow the sheep to graze on their land. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. First, as the sheep graze, they eat the tops off the grasses without killing the plants. As the grasses grow back they become stronger, and at harvest time the crop will be better. Second, the sheep supply plenty of natural fertilizer to the field through their droppings. Only when it is raining or when a field is in its productive cycle are the sheep not allowed.
While I was sitting in the field with my book, I realized that my digital camera can also record low-quality video. To pass the time I made the following four videos throughout the day, both on and off the horse. They provide a pretty good summation of what a day out at pasture with 260 sheep is like.
Shepherding, Part 1, where I introduce you to the sheep, the dogs, and the horse, Lady.
Shepherding, Part 2, where, while on horseback, I explain some more about the sheep and dogs.
Shepherding, Part 3, where I talk a little more about Jackie, the border collie, and the relationship between herding the sheep and cheese-making. “Sulla”, by the way, is French Honeysuckle.
Shepherding, Part 4, where I finish describing the relationship between herding and cheese-making.