“The fate of the depopulated valleys and the products at risk of extinction may change. We are a demonstration of that. Just roll up your sleeves and work hard.”
Roberto Grattone, 51, is the head of the Vallenostra cooperative and a producer of Montébore cheese, one of the first Slow Food Presidia in Piedmont. “In the late 1990s I was a young agronomist and I used to talk daily with producers in the area. I kept hearing them say: ‘It doesn’t mature well. It doesn’t sell. It’s not worth the cost.’ They would abandon old varieties and lose the memory of these historic products: ‘You can’t plant Timorasso (a local grape variety), it doesn’t render Carla apple‘, they said.”
And so Roberto, who relishes a challenge, founded a co-operative in 1999 to plant Timorasso. “We began to replant the vines among the laurels of the valleys, and today some people think we are crazy. But just look at Timorasso, the ambassador of the Tortonese Hills, and the revival of Montébore cheese. We are exporting it in small quantities to Germany and even to Hong Kong”.
In ancient times Montébore cheese was already known outside the valleys where it was produced. History tells us that it was the only cheese on the wedding menu of Gian Galeazzo Sforza and Isabella of Aragon (Duke and Duchess of Milan) at the end of the fifteenth century. It is made from 75% raw cow’s milk, and 25% sheep milk. It is known for its wedding-cake shape obtained by stacking robiolas of decreasing diameter on top of each other.
“For us, the Montébore revival began in 1999, when I and my companion Agata were members of Slow Food. Along with Maurizio Fava we rediscovered the production method by asking the older farmers. Carolina Bracco prepared the five forms we presented at Cheese at the Gavi convivium stand. Its success was impressive, as was the controversy and the discussions it provoked in the valley. We came home with pride and started the first trials at my grandfather’s farm. Thus began real revival of Montébore, which soon became a Slow Food Presidium.”
Of the original members of the cooperative, today only Roberto and Agata remain: “We have resisted despite the many ups and downs both at home and at work. Today, there is the daughter of Agata, Alessandra, and Matteo, Giuliano and Mauro, the owners of the dairies we buy milk from. There is also another company in the area producing Montébore, though over the years there have been many who have tried and given up.”
Vallenostra produces about 600 cheeses a week. The cow’s milk comes from Roberto’s cousin’s farm, which has 350 sheep. But the cooperative, which today employs around ten people, does more:
“We have a farmhouse, a vineyard, pigs bred in the wild, and we are also an educational farm. With the tools we have available today, things are simpler, but it’s still not easy to tap into the market.”
We finish our chat by talking about the future:
“I would do it again, because for me it was a life choice, not an entrepreneurial decision. We believe it is important to preserve the land and not forget about our origins, including the food. If I went back I would definitely make different choices: multifunctionality is nice but the investment was considerable in terms of time, money and effort. I count on the young people who work with us, Alessandra, her sons, and the small grandchildren, growing with a solid connection to our land.”
Roberto and Agata will both be at Cheese on September 15-18.
Interview by Carlo Petrini, taken from La Repubblica Torino, published in Italian on the 9th of July 2017.