Milk poses no limits to creativity

07 September 2021

Formazza is the northernmost town in Piedmont, and it’s here on the Swiss border that we find today’s destination: the Formazza Agricola farm.

Formazza Agricola started in 1989 with an act of love and solidarity for the local area, damaged by a devastating flood two years prior. “Without intervention the area was destined for a rapid depopulation, with the consequent loss of its associated culture and traditions. That’s how the different small business-owners joined forced to create this cooperative.”

I’m speaking to Lara Pennati, a young entrepreneur – and a member of the cooperative since its foundation – who, together with her sister Silvia, runs the family business. “We come from a family of farmers a little further down the valley. In 2003 our father decided to join the cooperative; at the time I was 14 years old and Silvia was 9, and we started helping out from that time.” Lara explains that for her the real turning point was doing a degree in animal management: “a technical course that really helped me to establish a fruitful collaboration with the University of Milan.”

Innovating in harmony with nature at Formazza

Butter of Formazza Agricola

Entering the barn one perceives how the world of scientific research can help in the management of an ancestral practice like animal husbandry, improving it and preserving its traditional strengths at the same time. The 45 Swiss Brown cows who are lactating remain in the barn while the others are out on the pasture. The milking is done by a special machine which requires the animals to come inside a stall, as Silvia explains: “This robot is a great system from the point of view of animal welfare, because the cows are not forced to be milked twice a day; they decide when and how often to be milked. This innovation represents an easing of pressure on our work hours too, and gives us more time to do other things.” Lara continues: “The software shows us the flow of milk and the potential presence of anomalous bacteria or blood in real time. Only clean milk is collected in the tank, a fundamental condition for making raw milk cheese.”

The push to innovate is in perfect harmony with care for the traditions of this area, which means that the food the cows eat is produced almost entirely in-house. “In the summer we only give them freshly cut grass. It’s a job that requires time and energy, but it’s rewarding. Our cows love it, and the cheese we make from their milk has super flavors and aromas, not to mention great nutritional qualities! Even the hay we use to feed them in the winter we make ourselves, trying to conserve the integrity of the flowers as much as possible.” A profound effort not just for the animals’ diet, but because one of the values of farming is maintaining the land. As they say with pride: “If agriculture disappears from the mountains, the mountains will die. In a terrible summer like this one, with lots of bad weather, all the effort and perseverance is in the name of the environment.”

Cheese and ice cream from the mountains

Formazza
Formazza Agricola, processing mascarpa

For now, you’ll have to imagine the deliciousness of their products for yourself, with their excellent texture, taste and aging. As Silvia says: “The beauty of a raw ingredient like milk is that there are no limits to creativity.” The flagship production is of course the Formazza, a semi-cooked cheese from the Ossola mountains that we call Sümmer in the summer, given the prevalence of grasses and alpine flowers in the animals’ diet when it’s made. There’s also the mascarpa (or mascherpa), a ricotta from Val Formazza which is also on the Slow Food Ark of Taste, whose distinctive characteristic is that it’s left in clothes and then hung up in the cellar for at least a month. The Formazza Blu is also worthy of note, a blue-veined cheese like Rocquefort, then there’s the hard-rind Oro which has a long aging period, from 12 to 15 months. There’s another product that was born almost by accident, but over the year it’s become predominant: their ice cream, good enough to be a finalist in a worldwide competition.

The curiosity and desire to experiment are without doubt the defining features of Lara and Silvia’s project, which they’re now consolidating with the addition of a tavern, the Taverna Alegar in Domodossola, where they can sell their products directly to a wider public. Because if a product is good it has to be so from the beginning, starting with the grass and the hay, right until it reaches the palate of the customer; this goodness must be promoted and communicated.

by Carlo Petrini, published in Repubblica Torino on 27/08/21

Lara Pennati will one of the protagonists at Women Cheesemakers on Sunday, September 19 at 11 a.m. at Biodiversity House. From September 17 to 20 in Bra you can meet lots of cheesemakers and affineurs from across the world and take part in tastings, Taste Workshops, Dinner Dates at Cheese, the world’s most important festival dedicated to artisanal cheese.

Our tips

Buy:

  • Formazza Agricola (Formazza, VB)

Eat:

  • Taverna Alegar (Domodossola, VB)
  • Rifugio Bimse (Formazza, VB)

Sleep:

  • Hotel Belvedere (Crodo, VB)
  • Albergo Edelweiss (Formazza, VB)