They say that the people of the mountains are stubborn. The story of the Historic Rebel Bitto certainly bears this out.
According to Piero Sardo, the president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, “heroic cheesemaking” is the only way to define the work of the Bitto farmers.
Let’s first go back to the beginning of the story:
The original Bitto has been produced in the valleys of the Bitto River, the Gerola and the Albaredo in Lombardy. Bitto cheesemakers work at mountain dairies at altitudes between 1400 and 2000 meters. Over many years they preserved the traditional practices that identify this cheese.
Real Bitto producers also preserve the Alpine biodiversity through their work: They lead their herds in rotations from the lowest to the highest points of the pasture. This practice helps regenerate the pastures and prevents overgrazing.
In 1994, a PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) expanded the production of Bitto cheese to the whole province of Sondrio. It even went further by introducing the use of feed and permitting the addition of selected starter cultures in 2005.
In 2006, the historic Bitto producers exited from the PDO, and the Italian Agriculture Ministry imposed sanctions on them in 2009. The producers never gave up, and along the way they found many supporters: journalists, gastronomes, associations, and Slow Food.
Slow Food worked with them to set up a Presidium with a very strict production protocol:
Heritage Bitto must be made with the addition of 10-20% Orobica goat’s milk and can be produced only in mountain pastures (at altitudes between 1,400 and 2,000 meters above sea level) in summer.
Wood must fuel the fire under the cauldron in which the milk is heated, to add complex layers to the final aroma. Wooden utensils must be used instead of steel or plastic. Wood helps to develop the milk’s natural microflora and give sensory characteristics to each cheese.
The cheeses must be dry-salted inside their wooden molds, to encourage the development of a more delicate rind and ensure better aging.
Bitto has featured in all of Slow Food’s major events, the Earth Markets and buying groups. The producers have taken part in exchanges with other cheesemakers from all over the world.
Bitto has become an international emblem of Slow Cheese and biodiversity protection. The producers’ association opened a collective aging and marketing center in the Gerola Valley, in the province of Sondrio, to promote true Bitto production.
To raise the necessary investment, they set up a limited company to raise funding, including from individuals outside the cheesemaking world. The project has relaunched the mountain cheese, supporting the producers and their pasture management activities.
Convincing the authorities
Over the years, the rebels have grown stronger, creating a problem for those who had refused to legitimize them. Eventually this led to a revolution and an agreement with authorities.
“With some exceptions, especially in the wine sector, for years in Italy the ‘cohesion’ of a product and a place was measured based on the negation of differences,” said Paolo Ciapparelli, the Presidium’s long-standing coordinator.
“In France, PDOs date back to the 19th century. Prestigious wines have adapted the PDOs to add value to historically excellent products of limited areas and very high quality. They end up pulling larger productive areas behind them. The tens of thousands of bottles stimulate millions. The Bitto model, on a reduced scale, can work in the same way, with mutual advantages.”
The final chapter in the story came with the signing of an agreement between the consortium to safeguard heritage Bitto, the municipality of Gerola, and the consortium for the protection of Valtellina Casera.
“Hard work, dedication, know-how, stubbornness are all characteristics that define their vision of life and their traditions. This vision probably has few equals in the world. And now finally they are seeing their distinctiveness officially recognized. This is a good day for other small-scale producers who can hope for a similar result. It is a good day for Slow Food, which has always supported them, respecting their decisions. But most of all, it is a magnificent day for the Bitto rebels. They can now look more happily towards the future.”
We can think of no better example of the strength and importance of network, of Slow Food and its Presidia.
Adapted from “Bitto’s Victory” published by Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity in November 2014.
Cheese is an event organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra. To discover what we do, visit slowfood.com.