Claudia Gamba is energetic in nature, firm but gentle, like the cheeses she makes. She’s the voice of the agricultural cooperative of Mombarone in the Province of Biella, and an example of all-female entrepreneurship, though she’s not the only one: Six out of nine members of the cooperative are women. They manage resources collectively and work together, a rarity nowadays.
“We are women that command!” she says jokingly, then starts telling her simple but special story in the small town of Settimo Vittone, not far from the land of the Carema grape (Slow Food Presidium). “There are nine families involved, with people from 40 to 70 years of age, all small-scale breeders. If the elderly leave us then we’re done. Each one of us has their own farm and cows (around 30 each), but we keep the milk in an old stable that used to be home to a latteria turnaria cooperative, which used to host all the cheesemaking activities in the area. It used to be a very common tradition, and we revived it in 1991 when we founded the cooperative: here everyone is responsible for everything collectively, from the sweeping up to the selling of the cheese.”
Claudia studied accounting but passed long summers on her father’s farm. She eventually took charge of the farm, and soon after, the cooperative. “We did everything through teamwork. We didn’t receive any funds, but simply shared what we had, our cows and their milk. Today we have a workshop, aging cellars and a store. By sticking to a routine we’ve managed to produce high quality cheese.”
“The cows are milked twice a day, and the milk is then brought to the cooperative. Here two cheesemakers transform it into a thousand forms, all made exclusively with raw milk, and no selected cultures: Toma, butter, yogurt, ricotta, and above all the Salignùn and Mörtrett.”
The last two are two rarities, and have already boarded the Ark of Taste. They are made with salt, chili pepper and cumin. Salignùn is fresher, while Mörtrett is aged. “The motivation behind making cheese used to be to not waste anything! And today they are the base of many traditional dishes: Toma instead of butter in polenta concia or in soups, and Salignùn as a pizza topping,” says Claudia.
“We work with an average of 600-700 liters of milk per day, producing a total of 60-70 kilos of cheese. We sell them at our store and the revenue goes to the members. This is a productive equilibrium: we don’t want any surplus because producing in excess might lead to becoming a wholesaler. We sell less, but of better quality. We are very attentive to the quality of the milk; it’s checked every two months.”
The collective structure is also useful for sales: “Today I’m managing the shop, but we work in turns, with a different person at the store every nine days. We’re always open! In addition to breeding and milking, we also manage the shop together, cleaning and washing the tools.”
We shouldn’t understate how much they care about the welfare of their animals: “We have Pezzata Rossa and Castana Valdostana cows, which we leave to graze in the woods near Settimo. We don’t feed them silage and, obviously, they don’t eat any GM feed.”
This is the beauty of a community: “We take care of each other, and if there are any problems we solve them together.” It balances out the difficulties for small-scale producers and lets them survive in an increasingly difficult and bureaucratic sector. “They only ask us to fill out forms. It doesn’t matter for them that your cheese is good, or that you are protecting a tradition. We are treated the same as industrial facilities where there are paid managers who are responsible for each aspect of the production. But the satisfaction of our clients tell us how much they enjoy our cheese, we know it’s all worth it.”
Interview by Carlo Petrini, published in Italian by La Repubblica Torino on 20th of August.