The wonder of Macagn, the mountain cheese of Valsesia

“If you want to see something more extreme, I’ll take you.” We’re sitting around a table laden with dried pork and deer meat, speck, a block of butter, macagn cheese, bread, wine and fresh mountain water.

I’m speaking to Emanuela Ceruti, a producer of macagn. Looking around, it’s hard to picture anything more extreme than what we experienced today.

It’s true, we’re only 961 meters above sea level, there’s a house, walled pens for the animals, and with a little effort you can even get here by car, following a dirt-gravel road and praying that no rocks fall from above or damage the underside of the vehicle. It’s not difficult to imagine how treacherous the terrain becomes as you continue upwards. Clearly, everything I can see here is the result of incredible determination and a rigorous work ethic.

Magagn cheese aging on wooden shelves. Photo: Valerie Ganio Vecchiolino

WHERE TO FIND MACAGN AT CHEESE 2019

Macagn (Slow Food Presidium) is made from raw milk and without selected starters at every milking, a method born of the necessity of starting the process while the milk is still warm (it’s 37°C at milking). Because it’s made twice a day, macagn has a strong fragrance of pasture, with pleasant floral aromas present. For this reason the cheese shouldn’t be aged too long: it’s ideal sensory profile is obtained after three to five months of affinage.

At Cheese 2019 you can find it in the Presidia Street of the Market.

ON THE TABLE

Apart from the speck and the wine – bartered from other producers – and the bread, everything on the table has been produced here. The water flows right from the source. The milk from the Brown Swiss cows who graze on the pastures provides butter and cheese. The pigs are bought as piglets from farms on the plains and raised here on the farm, fed whey from the processing of the milk, and the deer was hunted in the surrounding woodland. There’s no shortage of chickens, two gardens that provide beans, potatoes and many different vegetables, fruit trees and 37 Valais Blackneck goats, with their dark chests and white rears who also provide milk, and therefore cheese.

Emanuela Ceruti and Livio Garbaccio. Photo: Jacopo Ghione.

THE FAMILY

As well as Emanuela, there’s her husband Livio Garbaccio and his mother Angelina. Emanuela arrived relatively recently, just 15 years ago, when she fell in love with Livio. Originally from Valsesia, she studied Economics in Pavia but soon understood that wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life; what she really wanted was the mountains.

The Garbaccio family, on the other hand, have been here for generations. Angelina, 77 years young, in jeans and a woolen vest, with strong arms and a suntan, stays here all year round, even in the winter when life becomes really extreme.

Then there are the children. Marco, 12 years old, accompanies among the pastures and tells me the names of the individual cows (there’s Parma, who’ll soon give birth, Galatea, Gioia and Merlina). He’s been milking them himself for three years already. His sister Greta, 9 year old, is waiting for us barefoot when we arrive in the car, and dances happily along the rocky path. She doesn’t know how to milk the cows yet, but she’s already got a handle on the goats, and milks them together with her grandmother Angelina.

A panorama of Valsesia. Photo: Silvia Ceriani

LIVING THE MOUNTAINS

I have a lot of questions, about cheese, and perhaps even more so about the life of this family. Seeing their table one might feel envy, but then you have to ask yourself the true cost, what it means. Would I be able to live like this? For me there’s no doubt: no I wouldn’t!

First of all, the mountains are difficult. Or, to put it better, they’re increasingly difficult. “For some time now we’ve been letting the cows out onto the pasture at sunset to graze through the night. These years are too hot, and the animals suffer if they stay out under the burning sun,” says Emanuela, who has a concrete first-hand experience of the climate crisis. “You can feel it when processing the milk too. Sometimes it’s out of your control, it’s difficult to manage.” In the meantime – it’s 5 p.m. – Angelina points out the goats down in the meadow, all lying under a tree. “It’s rare to see the goats so inactive, they’re suffering in these hotter summers too.”

Then there’s the pasture to take care of. Because those fields didn’t become so beautifully well-kept by themselves, just waiting for the first passer-by. “Since I came here, we’ve opened up new pieces of pasture. That field where the cows are grazing today has more or less the same age as Marco. Then there are bits that we need to re-seed, if a field dries up we have to re-green it. We have to dedicate constant care to the pasture.”

Macagn cheese at Cheese 2017. Photo: Luca Carli.

A PRODUCT OF VALUE

There are economic difficulties too. Emanuela sells her summer macagn at €13 a kilo, and the winter cheeses at €11. You might think this is too expensive, but if you experience all the work that goes into every form of cheese for yourself, you’ll soon change your mind. It’s an incredibly honest price. Emanuela and Livio are fighting to resist the salesmen who’d like to “save” the business in a bad year by buying up large quantities of cheese at heavily reduced prices.

Emanuel has done well to hold tight and convince Livio and Angelina to do the same. It’s not by offloading your product that you resolve the situation. They’ve chosen a different path, perhaps more risky, but surely more rewarding. “We started this business and we’re happy to show it to whoever wants to come and meet us, and among the first to stop by were the people from the town down below. Angelina was wary at first, but she’s happy about the way things are going now.”I believe this is the only way to overcome the challenges: showing people how we work, letting people try it for themselves – making butter, for example – and tasting it here.”

I gave it a try. I observed, worked the rennet a little – with Emanuela there to correct me a few times – and I ate a slice of macagn while looking at the green pastures, the grazing cows, listening to their cowbells and the birdsong. I tasted all the dedication they put into their work, all the poetry contained in this precious food.

by Silvia Ceriani, info.eventi@slowfood.it

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