The land of the Brogna Sheep

03 September 2021

Velo Veronese is a mountain town in the Lessini Mountains in Veneto. It’s just 30 kilometers from Verona, but it’s already another world: there are no tourists with cameras hanging around their necks here, no cars and no bars; instead there are sheep – and in particular the Brogna breed – that graze on on meadows lined with the remains of dry stonewalls, tiny villages and beech forests.

A well-conserved heritage, as evidenced by the fact that this landscape was among the first to be added to the Italian Register of Historic Rural Landscapes. But Velo Veronese deserves a visit not just to enjoy the tranquility of Lessinia. It’s worth planning a trip to enjoy the cuisine of Giovanni Caltagirone at his restaurant 13 Comuni.

The results are memorable, particularly for his careful research and promotion of the Brogna sheep, recently declared a Slow Food Presidium.

The Brogna Sheep at Cheese

Giovanni Caltagirone and his dishes based on the Brogna sheep will be present at Cheese at a Taste Workshop on September 17: The Sheep Breeds of Veneto. Here’ll you discover the nutritional qualities and sensory characteristics of Brogna sheep meat, with its flavor and aroma of the pasture. The chef will prepare an antipasto of smoke lamb with organic fermented cabbage, sheep milk ricotta, a mostarda of Decio apple and Trentosso pear, two ancient fruit varieties; followed by tortelli stuffed with lamb and lavander butter.

Book your place now!

Lessinia and the Brogna

Lessinia Brogna
The Lessini mountains in winter. Photo: Marco Malvezzi

Giovanni, you’re not originally from Lessinia but from Verona. Why did you choose to move here?

Lessinia was where I came on holiday as a child: my parents first brought me here when I was four years old, even at weekends. Year after year I understood that I wanted to live here: once I’d grown up I began to help my father in his restaurant in Verona, but my desire was always to come and live in the mountains. I realized that dream much later, at the beginning of the new millennium, when I moved here with my wife Elisa, with the idea of starting our own restaurant. It had been 12 years since I’d last worked in a kitchen! But from the beginning I knew that just cooking wasn’t enough: I wanted to share stories and express this land through my cooking. I was looking for a precise identity: cooking is like calligraphy, a grammar, a tool for communicating meaning.

Where does your interest in the Brogna sheep come from?

From when I was young! I used to go looking for mushrooms with my mother in these mountains, or to buy eggs from the farmers, and I remember seeing these barnyard animals, among them the Brogna, this rustic sheep that has learnt to live on little.

Sheep, pastures and the Slow Meat campaign

The tradition of pastoralism goes back to the Neolithic age in this area…

Yes, but today it’s at risk: even in Lessinia, there are more and more cows, because they’re more profitable. I wanted to restore value to this breed, but it hasn’t been easy: I think of my wife Elisa who works on the restaurant floor; she’s the one who has to convince our customers to order sheep in a place where the tradition of consuming this meat has been completely lost. My father-in-law, who ran the restaurant before us, was a good cook, with a simple, authentic style, and I remember him smiling when I insisted on sheep meat. But I think I chose the right path. Since 2021, we’ve had the Association for the Brogna Sheep: when Massimo Veneri, one of the herders with the largest number of sheep, asked me to take part, I accepted immediately.

Every year the number of clients that come to eat Brogna sheep meat grows, though unfortunately these dishes are off-the-menu: the cost of making them is higher than the others, because they require a lot of work that isn’t always seen. For example, to cook a single leg there are five or six different muscles which must be processed carefully to ensure its satisfying to the palate.

What makes the meat of the Brogna sheep special?

brogna sheep
Brogna lamb. Photo: Marco Malvezzi

With the sheep meat I buy from Lorenzo Erbisti, the only herder practicing transhumance in Lessinia, I approach it in the same way as beef: because sheep too have their different cuts and all deserve to be valued. My approach is “slow meat” in the sense that I try to work with the whole animal. I don’t think it’s ethical or respectful of the animal if we butcher it simply to throw it in the oven: there’s no appreciation for the sacrifice of the animal that way, but we need a conscious kitchen promotes every cut.

Regarding the quality of the Brogna, its raw meat is excellent, aromatic: you can make a great tartare from its loin. You have to think about cooking all of it, even the head. The brains can be fried as an antipasto, for example. Personally, I even cook the cheeks. Cleaning the meat of all the tendons is hard work: it requires time and patience, but I like doing it. Creativity comes from knowing the animal, being able to work with it and knowing what it has to offer.

The Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance

Giovanni Caltagirone, 13comuni, Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance

What does it mean to be part of the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance in Lessinia?

The Brogna isn’t the only local product I work with. There are two other Slow Food Presidia nearby: the Mountain Pasture Monte Veronese cheese and the Lessinia Misso Pear. I look for cheeses from the local dairies that work with the raw milk of their own pasture-raised cows: I also buy the half-carcasses because I want to work with the whole animal! I’ve built up a network of local suppliers and I’ve learned to work with the ingredients that are available according to the season. Today the producers call me and tell me, “I have ten rabbits, how do you want me to raise them? What do you want to feed them with?” To work in this way you have to adopt a new perspective: being part of the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance is all part of that.

Do you have any particular memories of adaptations you’ve made according to what was available?

Once the guy who supplies my vegetables from his organic garden brought me a case of spring onions. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do with them, but I improvised, glazing them with balsamic vinegar and serving them with liver. Another time I had a lot of red turnips, so I made them in a sweet-and-sour style and conserved them to use as a side dish. Over time, I’ve learned that it’s not so much about what I want to cook, but rather how best to use the ingredients that are available.

A good kitchen is one that’s full of positive energy; this energy begins with the farmer who cultivates in a good, clean and fair way, the animals who are fed well and whose meat is cooked with love. This love and positive energy are there on the plate, and they’re good for the people that eat them: it’s the reason we get excited to eat a plate cooked by our mothers: because it’s full of her love.

The foundation of your cuisine is an enormous affection for this land. What do you most love about this place?

The thing I love most about Lessinia is the nature, the landscape that has remained intact despite the encroaching intensive farms, and the barns where the cows eat feed rather than grazing freely on the pastures. The people here are sincere and kind; they believe in their land. I’d like them to understand that farming in another way is possible, a more sustainable way: this can only come about by keeping an open mind and following what happens elsewhere.

by Raffaella Ponzio,