For most people, the image of milk is closely tied to cows, usually pictured in some bucolic landscape, a white coat with great black spots. But it’s not always like that, thankfully: not all cows are Holstein-Friesians, though this breed is the most widespread worldwide, usually raised in an intensive, industrial fashion.
When we talk of milk we should use the plural, milks, because there are lots of animal milks used: cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, and donkey, to name the types you can find on sale in Italy. When we talk about the processing of milk into cheese, the question becomes even more intriguing.
As well as having different cheeses according to the animal milk used, there are dairy products whose uniqueness comes from the biodiversity of the pastures where the animals graze, from the processing techniques, and even from the breed of animal species. It’s an important aspect of biodiversity, because these animal breeds have been selected over the centuries by herders for their capacity to adapt to the lands they live in, to the available food, to the altitudes, to the community’s lifestyle… these characteristics are conferred to the milk they produce. If we lose those breeds and choose simply to raise a handful of the most “productive” breeds then we’re deliberately cutting off branches from the great tree of the animal kingdom, as well as all the flavors, aromas and colors of the products we make from their milks. Losing these local breeds means losing those animals who are best able to survive in difficult, marginal areas. There are numerous examples of cheeses that represent traditions, communities, places, pastures and their histories, and which are unthinkable without the milk of local breeds, sometimes unfairly considered lesser animals. Today we focus on sheep.
A cheese for every sheep
Sardinia – the Sardinian sheep and Shepherds’ Fiore Sardo
Fiore Sardo is a cheese with a long history and a strong, distinctive flavor. It is the typical product of the sheep-raising communities of the inland areas of Sardinia, particularly Barbagia, a mountainous area in Nuoro Province. The traditional production technique has remained essentially unchanged for centuries: Just after milking, the raw, whole milk of Sarda sheep is placed in copper boilers and coagulated using lamb rennet normally produced by the shepherd himself.
The cheeses are placed on wooden or woven cane racks (cannizza) near a fire, where they dry and smoke for about 2 weeks. Finally, they mature for several months (the exact period depends on the producer and style) on the ground in a cool, dry room. Once the right degree of ripeness is reached, the cheeses are periodically greased with a mixture of wine vinegar, olive oil, and salt. This process is simple but it requires extraordinary attention by the cheesemaker, slow gestures, and a lot of patience. Fiore Sardo was made in order to have cheese during the dry season, when the sheep do not produce milk. An ancient breed, the Sardinian sheep is also found in other regions of Italy, particularly the central-South. It’s well known for the quality of its milk.
Sicily – the sheep of the Belice Valley
Vastedda is Italy’s only stretched-curd sheep’s milk cheese. Historically it was made by the skilled cheesemakers in the Belìce Valley during the summer as a way of salvaging defective pecorino cheeses. The name comes from the dialect “vasta”, meaning spoiled, gone bad. The cheesemakers’ extraordinarily original idea was to rework the unsuccessful cheeses, stretching them at high temperatures to create this round, flat cheese. The processing style varies according to area and dairy, and today it is no longer made to rework unsuccessful cheeses, but directly from fresh sheep milk. The milk comes from a local breed from the Belice Valley. The sheep is mostly presently in the area around Agrigento and Trapani, but can be found across Sicily and even in Calabria.
Tuscany: the Massese sheep and Pistoia Mountain Pecorino
In the mountains of Pistoia some families still make sheep’s milk cheeses in the same way as they did a hundred years ago: with the raw milk and natural rennet of sheep raised on mountain pastures.
These producers conserve the secret to making a mountain pecorino, characterized by its notes of fresh herbs in the younger forms, and chestnut and hay in the aged cheeses. The Pistoia Mountain Pecorino is made with the milk of the Massese sheep, a great dairy sheep. It is raised in Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Liguria. It’s easy to spot one: they have a lead-grey fleece, shiny dark hair, dark spiral horns and bulging eyes.
Piedmont – Langhe sheep and tuma
The tuma of the Langhe sheep was originally a sheep milk cheese (but today the Murazzano PDO allows the use of cow milk too) from the Alta Langa region. The finished product has a cylindrical form, weighing from 200 to 300 grams, and no crust: the cheese is straw-yellow in color and soft. Behind this cheese is the Langhe sheep, a breed at risk of extinction. Also known as Langarola, it is a medium sized sheep with a ram-like nose profile, especially in rams. The fleece is open and of a characteristic white color; the ears are medium sized, hanging down towards the front; there are no horns. It’s mostly found in Cuneo province.