We all can name a few Italian cheeses. But how many of us can name the cows they come from? In 1985, the Italian Registry Office for native breeds listed sixteen breeds in need of protection. Many of them are already on board the Ark of Taste or form Presidia, and Slow Food promotes their cheeses through events like Cheese.
High quality cheese comes from high quality milk, and high quality milk comes from cows raised in the right conditions. The diversity of local cow breeds is one of the main reasons why there is such diversity of cheeses in Italy, and it is as important to know about them in order to understand the country’s strong regional cheese heritage.
When you’re tasting the many cheeses offered at the Italian marketplace at Cheese, ask the producers which cow breed provided the raw milk, and listen out for these names:
1. Agerolese, Campania
The Agerolese cows derive from the crossbreeding of indigenous grey Podolica cattle with a variety of imported breeds including the Friesian and Jersey. She produces 20 liters of milk per day, with more than 3.5% fat content. Her raw milk was traditionally used to make Monk’s Provolone (PDO), a semi-hard cheese produced in the Lattari mountains of the Sorrentine peninsula.
This breed was listed as endangered by the FAO in 2007, as it was being replaced by the more productive Holsetin Friesian cattle. Following the continuous decline in their population, the Agerolese was listed on the Ark of Taste. Today, there are only around 300 of them left, bred in the in Agerola, Pagani, Gragnano areas. Agerolese is one of the 16 Italian cows recognized and protected by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture.
2. Cinisara, Sicily
Native to the town of Cinisi, the Cinisara cow is at grave risk of extinction. Nobody knows her exact origins, but is believed to be related to the Podolica cow. There are about a thousand of them left in the area between Palermo and Trapani. The breed is known for her high productivity in tough, rustic terrain, and its milk is used to make the traditional Cinisara Caciocavallo cheese, which is also on the Ark of Taste.
3. Pezzata Rossa d’Oropa, Piedmont
The Pezzata Rossa d’Oropa (Oropa Spotted Red) has been raised for centuries in the provinces of Vercelli and Biella, in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. She is believed to be a cousin of the French Abondance cattle, and is included in FAO’s list of rare breeds, being classified as an endangered native breed since 1985.
The Pezzata Rossa is renowned for its hardiness and frugality, which make it well suited to harsh conditions. Around 240 farmers in the provinces of Biella and Vercelli still raise the Pezzata Rossa d’Oropa, and the current population stands at around 4,000 females, with a total of around 7,000 animals. The milk from the Pezzata Rossa d’Oropa is used to make excellent butter and typical Piedmontese cheeses such as Tuma Macagn (Slow Food Presidium).
4. Burlina, Veneto
A black and white coat, black head with a white patch on the forehead: at first glance, the Burlina (also known as the Bassanese, Binda, Boccarda and Pezzata degli Altipiani) looks like a typical dairy cow. In fact, up until the 1930s, she used to be one of the most common dairy cows in northeastern Italy. Populations declined significantly after the Second World War, as the breed was gradually was replaced by the more productive Friesian. Nowadays there are only a few hundred registered, making its disappearance a real possibility. However, the milk they produce in summer is used to make some very special Italian cheeses, such as Mountain Morlacco (Slow Food Presidium) and Allevo di Burlina. These cheeses are also at risk, as a consequence, and the heritage they represent.
If native breeds are all replaced by fast productive cows (as has been happening around the world) the biodiversity and quality of cheeses will also be in serious danger. So, don’t forget about these rare, endangered breeds next time you eat a caciocavallo and learn a few names before coming to Cheese, and put a smile on the cheesemaker’s face!