The Garfagnana is a beautiful, remote part of Tuscany that is overlooked by most tourists.It is a river valley with the Apuan Alps along one side and the Apennines to the other and there was a time when Elliott and I went on holiday there quite regularly for the walking and wild swimming but the mountain weather was always unpredictable and I have memories of being very cold and wet a lot of the time. Good weather for cheese making, however, and last week I returned to visit Verano Bertagni who makes pecorino at his small dairy in Pieve Fosciana.
Verano comes from generations of shepherds but now has no animals himself. Instead he buys milk and transforms it into cheese. He has 22 suppliers and that morning had already been to collect milk from the furthest away: two friends who take their rare breed Massese sheep to over winter near Pisa. From this milk he makes about 300 – 400kgs of cheese a week. A lot of this is ricotta for the local market to be eaten with jam for breakfast, on bruschetta or roasted vegetables as well as cooking in pasta and cakes.
He makes a small quantity of goat’s cheese and a mixed milk toma. Once taken out of their moulds the cheeses are dry salted by hand instead of using brine and then left to age on shelves made from spruce in his small maturing room for between 1 to 6 months.
A lot of pecorino is made using commercial starter cultures. Cheese cultures are combined single strains of bacteria isolated from dairies producing good cheese. They are added to the milk at the start of cheese production. The bacteria in them consume the milk’s lactose producing lactic acid which makes the milk sour. The more sour the milk, the easier it is for curds to expel whey. They are also important in the aroma, texture and flavour generated as the cheese matures. Verano has been working with the university of Pisa studying cultures using bacteria from his own milk and I learnt a lot from him about bacteria and how they work
He makes 3 types of pecorino, all different sizes and ages. Sweet, milky Taula di Mennei, semi stagionato Soraggio and the older Tuada whose name comes from the tuada or cellar where the cheeses are aged for up to 6 months. Tuada is made using the previous day’s whey as the starter, a deliciously dynamic but unpredictable way to get things going and we have some arriving in Bermondsey next week so come to Spa Terminus any Saturday to give it a try