The image of the Holstein-Friesian cow is what comes to mind for most people when they think of cows in general: it’s the most common breed in the world, raised in huge numbers for its high milk production. Originally from the polders of the Netherlands, it has been widely adopted over a vast area of the planet, and there are now characteristic stocks in several countries.
But besides the cosmopolitan Friesian and other commonly-found breeds like the Brown Swiss and the Simmental there are over a thousand cattle breeds in the world. They may produce less milk, but there’s almost always better-adapted to the environmental conditions of the specific areas where they live.
After “Every breed is different: Sheep” we now turn our attention to some of our favorite native Italian cows, and the magnificent products made with their milk.
Every breed is different
Trentino Alto Adige – Alpine Gray Cattle and pasture-raised cheeses
We climb the mountains of Trentino to discover the rich variety of cheeses made from its pastures. Some of the cheeses are low in fat, as more fat is used to make butter, while others have a washed rind, because they’re kept humid with saltwater during the aging process. What these products all have in common is the Alpine Gray Cattle whose milk is used to make them; this breed is one of the oldest inhabitants of the Alps.
Raised in marginal, extreme environments, like high-altitude farms, They can adapt perfectly to difficult mountain conditions. The population is concentrated in the provinces of Bolzano and Trento with some in Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia too, having characteristics that make it ideal for the rural economy of the mountains. It’s now raised both for its milk, which is particularly well-suited to cheesemaking and direct consumption, and its meat, which is also of high quality. It has one of the best quality-quantity ratios among cow milks, providing a large quantity of milk that’s suitable for cheesemaking.
Veneto – The Burlina Cow and Grappa Mountain Morlacco
Herders and woodsmen who settled on the slopes of Monte Grappa in past centuries used to make a soft, low-fat, uncooked-curd cow’s milk cheese, which was named after their native region in the Balkans, Morlachia.
There was a time that the milk all skimmed and the milk used to make butter: the leftover milk was used to make a “poor chees”, which was nevertheless an essential part of the herders’ diets. Morlacco is a soft cheese with a salty flavor. The saltiness is reduced with aging, which brings the flavors of the pasture, including hazelnut, to the foreground. The milk traditionally used was from the Burlina cow, the only native Veneto breed that is at serious risk of extinction today. Small, with a black and white cow, it produces an extraordinary milk but in limited quantities. Today some farmers are recovering the breed stock, and the Morlacco cheese has become a Slow Food Presidium which aims to increase aging times so as to be able to deliver an interesting cheese to market.
Piedmont – Pezzata Rossa d’Oropa Cattle and Upper Elvo Raw Milk Butter
The production of butter has deep roots in the local culture of the Elvo Valley. The high alpine pastures host buildings as old as from the 17th century and the first half of the 18th. These shelters are near water sources and were used as houses, barns and dairies in the summer months.
Small stone houses called fraidél were used to collect water from the sources at a temperature of six degrees: this was used to cool to the milk and rise the cream. The cow used was the Pezzata Rossa d’Oropa, a close relative of the Aosta Valley cattle. Common in the Elvo Valley, it was originally from the north of Europe but was introduced to Italy as early as the 5th century. It’s a dual-purpose breed, but mostly for milk. It’s well adapted to the difficult conditions of mountain pastures and plays and important role in protecting the landscape. Recovering the raw milk butter made with its milk is one of the aims of the Slow Food Presidium.
Emilia Romagna – White Modenese Cow and Parmigiano Reggiano; the Red reggiana and Parmigiano from red cows
Parmigiano Reggiano is the most famous and imitated Italian cheese, bar none. It’s a 100% natural cheese too, with great nutritional characteristics and an extraordinary taste. Up until the Second World War the preferred dairy breeds for Parmigiano Reggiano were two local breeds: the White Modenese Cow and the Red Reggiana, but since the 1950s they been gradually replaced by the Holstein-Friesian, famous for its productivity and large udders that can be milked mechanically.
In half a a century the number of White Modenese cows has fallen from 140,000 to just 650. The Presidium and local institutions are working to recover it because it produces milk that is perfectly suited to the production of Parmigiano Reggiano and cheesemaking in general. This is due to the great balance between fats and proteins in its milk, and the presence of K-casein, which aids coagulation and provides a more resilient milk. This breed also grows quickly, and its marbled meat can be cooked quickly. Unfortunately there are only two dairies left that produce Parmigiano Reggiano using White Modenese Cows exclusively.
The Red Reggiana has seen a similar decline: in 1955 there were 130,000, but less than a thousand by the end of the 1980s. A recovery is slowly starting, thanks to the work of several farmers who believe in the value and the quality of this local breed.
The Red Reggiana’s milk is rich in protein, particularly casein, as well as calcium and phosphorous, and has great qualities: it coagulates quickly, with a consistent and elastic curd. The whey is clear and the cream rises well, and it thus better suited to cheesemaking than the milk of a Friesian: with the milk of Red Reggiana cows one can make produce a kilogram more of cheese for every 100kg of milk processed. Its suitability for use in making Parmigiano Reggiano is evidenced by the taste of the cheese itself!
Basilicata – Podolian Cattle and Caciocavallo Podolico
Caciocavallo is a symbol of Southern Italian cheese-making tradition, made using the stretched-curd technique developed in the area over the centuries in order to ensure the quality and durability of cow’s milk cheeses.
The Caciocavallo Podolico is made using the milk of a specific breed, the Podolian, which lives in the southern Apennines; today there are around 25,000 left. The reason for these small numbers are that it produces a small quantity of milk, though it is of extraordinary quality, and for its rustic characteristics; it must be raised in a wild or semi-wild state, and is not adapted for intensive farming. It must be safeguarded, because it is a natural sentinel for its area, and because the cheeses made with its milk are excellent. Slow Food has two Presidia regarding the Caciocavallo Podolico: on in the Gargano region, and one in Basilicata.