Pecorino is a name that encompasses an almost infinite number of ages, flavours and styles of sheep’s cheese made in so many regions of Italy that it would be difficult to choose a favourite to sell. We have thus avoided it completely up until our trip to Le Marche last month when we spent time with Paola and Marino Marchese on their farm in Monte San Martino.
Monte San Martino sits at the foot of the Sibillini Mountains and we got there at the crack of dawn in time for cheese making. The promised panorama of snowy peaks was hidden in mist and when the door to the dairy opens the wet, low cloud fuses with thick steam from the cheese cauldron to form a thick blanket of fog. Paola ushers us in from the rain and tells us a bit about herself
Paola and Marino, he from Bolzano, she from Venice, are an unusual couple. Both university educated in the sciences, they came to Marche in the early 1980s because the price of land was so cheap. They weren’t the only ones; many of their neighbours are Sardinians who arrived in the 70s to take over farms that had been abandoned. Between 1951-1971 half the population left the interior uplands of Marche in a tide of depopulation that was amongst the most severe in the Italy.
Right from the start Paola and Marino farmed organically and, 30 years on, make seasonal pecorino from their 480 razza sarda sheep. They have had up to 600 sheep but over the last year wolves have decimated their flock and on the day we visit Paola is working 350lts of milk. From this she will make close to 60kgs of cheese.
While she is still talking Paola adds rennet to the milk and heats it gently to 34C. Most cheeses made with unpasteurized milk will be worked at higher temperatures (55C in the case of Parmesan) to aid the extraction of the whey from the curds but even this much heat affects the unique complexity of the raw milk. Paola takes her time, letting the curds lose the whey themselves. The rennet she uses is from their lambs. It’s a muddy looking paste (complete with bits of coagulated milk from the lamb’s stomach) that is dissolved in water to release the enzymes; the water is filtered and then added to the milk. Some whey kept back from the day before is added to act as a starter and, after 3o minutes the curds are ready to be cut.
The curds are poured from the cauldron into moulds and left to drain before they are turned out into a big brine bath. In the meantime the leftover whey is reheated to extract ricotta. All over the village Paola’s still-warm ricotta, with its sweet, milky taste and silky texture is soon to be mixed with cream and jam and eaten with bread for breakfast.
At the end of the morning’s cheese making we are guided to the farmhouse and fed. Very quickly the table is covered with baskets of buckwheat bread, homemade hams and salami, Sicilian orange crostata and pecorino. There is pecorino with wild thyme, pistachios from Bronte or Sardinian saffron. There is Primo Sale, a week old cheese that was delicious with fresh mint, chilli and olive oil, sheep’s milk caciotta drizzled with honey and sprinkled with coffee grains, ricotta that had been smoked over juniper and beech. Pearl and Edie, too young for social graces or to have ever seen a table like it, bulldozer their way through a mountain of food and then instantly fall asleep in the car. Elliott and I fight the urge to do the same.
Paola’s pecorino will be available in Bermondsey soon