Sacred rites: transhumance in Abruzzo

07 September 2023

Porta dei Parchi (Gate to the parks) is an organic agriturismo in Anversa degli Abruzzi, a small village in the Gole del Sagittario Nature Reserve. The project was begun in the 1970s by the Marcelli family, in response to the depopulation of the mountains.

As the name suggests, this agriturismo serves as a gateway to the natural wonders of this region, including the Abruzzo National Park, the Maiella National Park, and other regional reserves.

Award-winning Pecorino Muffato

The first thing we discuss with the agritourism’s manager, Viola, is the award they recently won at the Italian Mountain Cheese Awards: “In this tenth edition, we received an invitation to participate, and we decided to compete. We were delighted that our raw milk pecorino muffato won in the sheep’s cheese category. It’s a blue cheese with a very particular story.”

Pecorino Muffato

Viola recounts how her father, Nunzio Marcelli, embarked on a project in Afghanistan focused on international cooperation in pastoralism between 2004 and 2007: “There, he exchanged of cheese production techniques with the local population. Thanks to this journey, we discovered some secrets about the use of noble cheese molds—essential elements for proper maturation, where fortunately, chemistry has not yet interrupted the wonders of nature. And that’s how our muffato was born.”

As Viola explains, the molds are selected from other cheeses and introduced into the milk. Aging takes place in a humid environment at a temperature of 10/11 degrees Celsius. To ensure that the fermentation process develops the right molds, the humidity inside the aging chamber is raised to 95%. After approximately 10 days, the cheese is pierced with steel needles to facilitate the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen, and then it ages for 2 months.

Recovery and return

The story of the award-winning muffato cheese leads to the story of the organic agriturismo: a story of rediscovery and resurgence. “My father studied economics at the Sapienza University in Rome and did a thesis on the recovery of mountain territories. His research focused on the revival of rural economies through pastoralism. At the time, it seemed crazy because while everyone was leaving the barns and moving to cities, he was going against the tide. After university he moved to Anversa degli Abruzzi, and founded this farm with 300 sheep and a shepherd.”

“On the other hand, my mother, Manuela, in 1982, completed her doctoral thesis on medicinal herbs and aromatic plants found in the Abruzzo pastures. The University of Florence asked her to conduct research on wild herbs. So my mom headed to the mountains and met my dad. The cooperative was born in 1977, and Manuela and Nunzio decided to embark on this path together to preserve these areas.”

Viola Marcelli at Cheese 2023 – Pastures of Abruzzo – Taste Workshop

Viola presents a dish based on sheep meat and cheese: dried sheep meat, sheep mortadella bruschetta and sheep’s milk robiola cheese.

Viola and her brother Jacopo grew up in the cooperative built by their parents before leaving for university. They didn’t know if they would ever return to the family pastures. As Viola tells me, “After working in the design industry in Milan and Rome, I realized that it wasn’t exactly what gave me satisfaction. My creative vein needed other outlets. Despite some initial difficulties, I decided to return to Anversa degli Abruzzi and work in the agriturismo. It was a great opportunity for me to develop my passion for design while bringing freshness and innovative ideas to Porta dei Parchi. I rebranded the image of the agriturismo and dedicated myself to the evolution of our cheeses.”

After a trip to the United States, Viola directed her creativity toward cheese production. She developed and improved production processes, revisited aging methods, and created new product categories. Her goal was to breathe new life into Abruzzo cheeses, differentiating them from the historical and traditional ones. She says with satisfaction, “We created new products like CacioFiorello, soft sheep’s cheese, sheep’s milk mortadella, and perfected the Pecorino Muffato. I also made colored cheeses using curds dyed with natural colors like beets, charcoal, and spirulina. And finally, soft cheeses that no one has ever seen: striped!”

Solutions for depopulation

Porta dei Parchi aims to draw attention to the problem of depopulation and the abandonment of the mountains. “This is precisely what prompted me to stay here,” continues Viola. “We are the guardians of the mountains. We live here 365 days a year, even during the low winter season. Anversa is a village of 200 inhabitants. I have two young children whom I drive to school every day, which takes about an hour each way. It was certainly a courageous choice on my part. But it’s worth it, the further I go, the more I’m glad I did it. It has been enriching; I’ve brought innovation and new influences.”

Viola Marcelli at Cheese 2023 – September: time of transhumance – Conference

Viola is the coordinator for the Slow Food community in Aquila focused on transhumance. She will be speaking at the conference “September: Time of Transhumance,” along with other important guests in the field of Italian cheese heritage, history, and culture.

Although Anversa is a small village, Porta dei Parchi creates work for about twenty people, most of whom come from various countries around the world. She tells me, “There are two people from Anversa who work with us, the rest are Dutch, Pakistani, Romanian, and Venezuelan. We’ve created a real mix of people, one which influences our products. For example, with a Japanese girl who wrote a thesis on transhumance here, we started making Japanese dumplings with the meat from our sheep.”

The scent of biodiversity

The innovation at Porta dei Parchi doesn’t begin and end with cheeses but continues with cured meats—designed to revalue sheep meat through the production of original products like air-dried sheep meat snacks, sheep mortadella, and roasted cured meats.

Anversa degli Abruzzi.

Today, Porta dei Parchi boasts 1400 sheep and 300 goats. The herds graze for most of the day, from 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. “In Abruzzo, there’s an extremely high forage biodiversity. More than 100 different herbs have been identified in a single meadow here. That’s what our animals feed on. In our milk, we find the richness of the pasture, which imparts all these aromas and scents without compromising their naturalness.”

The Sacredness of Transhumance in Abruzzo

Transhumance symbolizes the balance between humans and animals in these landscapes. “We have always practiced transhumance. We head up 45 km from Anversa, to the mountains of Scanno, where we have pastures and enclosed spaces to protect the animals from predators. We do three to four uphill journeys, gradually taking the herds up the mountain. We milk the goats and sheep at the farm, and when they dry up, we take them to graze. When calving starts again, they come back down.”

The Marcelli family has made this practice accessible to tourists. Transhumance is divided into three days, covering about 20 kilometers per day at the pace of the sheep. “The evening before departure is a day of celebration. In the past, there used to be a big gathering in the village to bid farewell to the herders who would leave for a few months to Puglia.”

A group ready to depart for transhumance.

Transhumance: a spiritual experience

Walking with the sheep is a transcendental experience: guiding a herd, maintaining calm and serenity is the art of herders. For many people who take part in transhumance, it stirs something within. It’s a direct experience of reconnecting with the land.

Abruzzo Slow

At Cheese, Viola presents a dish featuring sheep meat and cheese: air-dried sheep meat, bruschetta with sheep mortadella, and sheep robiola. She says, “The innovative part we bring is the use of sheep meat to make mortadella and milk to make robiola, which you don’t hear about often. These are products that shed new light on the Sopravissana sheep, known only for pecorino cheese and arrosticini (skewered grill meat), but which can be used in many different ways.”

Sopravissana sheep have a triple aptitude: they’re good for milk (which is very fatty and substantial), wool, and meat. They can expertly climb the slopes of the mountains like goats, are accustomed to walking, and move with agility. They have been the salvation of the people who live in these mountains.

by Cecilia Cacre, [email protected]

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

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