Denis Duclos is a 23-year-old agricultural entrepreneur. He lives with his parents in Gignod, five minutes from the Aosta Valley. These days he is working in the Pra d’Arc pastures where he produces a truly special Fontina.
Denis is proud of his craft, but he confesses at the end of our talk: “Living here is very romantic but I need to see my peers in the city. Up here cellphones don’t always work, I can’t even use WhatsApp to communicate with my girlfriend and friends. Times have changed since my grandfather stayed up in the mountains from June to September, and I don’t think it’s right to be isolated for so long. Every now and then, I can also give myself half a day of leisure.”
These are “mountains 2.0”, carried forward by young people who inherit the craft from the family, with a sense of belonging to the territory and the tradition they represent. But they do so by connecting and using the tools of the information age to their advantage.
Pra d’Arc is at an altitude of 2000 meters. A hundred hectares of pastureland and twenty hectares of bushes are found between 1800 – 2300 meters. “We had been renting for many years. Then we bought a place that you could call a farmhouse. The house, barn and dairy are at the center of four areas with risk of flooding. So much that the 40 meter-long barn is dug into rock. The place dates back to the 1800s and we have just renovated it. The house is old and uncomfortable, but we are satisfied with it.”
Duclos has a really beautiful project, since the prices of a pasture in the Aosta Valley range from 200 to 800 thousand euros. In Pra d’Arc they have sixty dairy cows and about twenty calves and steers. With this, they make 500 forms of alpine Fontina at a weight of nine kilograms each.
“We make the Fontina right after the milking, twice a day. In addition to me and my parents, there are two other villagers and a Moroccan boy who chose to come up here to make cheese with us. Milking by hand means we’re not dependent on the use of industrial starters, since the bacterial charge of the milk is quite high and acidification occurs naturally. Each cheese has notes of the ripe grass and flowers that the cows fed on that day. The cheeses recounts the happiness of the animals during the first days of pasture and their exhaustion when the lactation drops, but also the strain of lactic acid bacteria that has developed in the barn over the years.”
La Fontina as it used to be
But there’s more. Pra d’Arc is one of the six producers of the regional association of pasture owners, Arpav. They have started to experiment with the production of Fontina the way it was made a century ago.
“Despite the PDO that requires the use of concentrated feed, we decided to try feeding our cows pasture grass only. Last year we produced a thousand of these grass-fed Fontina, which is more genuine and also has less environmental impact. We don’t transport feed up here. Of course, the production is much lower so the price is higher.”
The aim of the project is to promote producers making real quality cheese who can’t manage to sell it market price: “Fontina has a 10% yield. Considering the cost of milk is 69 cents per liter, there isn’t much left for the breeder if they sell a mountain pasture Fontina for €7-8 a kilo. We are fortunate because my father manages our family dairy in Gignod, which is often visited by tourists. So we manage to increase the price a few euros. A consumer who buys from large distributors, even in Aosta, pays a surcharge of up to 50%. With Fontina Arpav we reach up to 20 euros per kilo, and we don’t lose anything through the thousand branches of the chain.”
Producers like Denis and their cheeses will be on display at Cheese from September 15 – 18. The marketplace, for the first time this year, will host hundreds of producers who work exclusively with raw milk. At the Free Space, there will be tastings of cheeses such as the one Denis makes, produced with raw milk and without the use of industrial starter cultures.
Interview by Carlo Petrini, published by La Repubblica Torino in Italian on the 23rd of July 2017.