To make good, healthy cheese you need natural, diverse meadows

18 September 2021

In Italy stable meadows are disappearing through the abandonment of the countryside and soil consumption

Across Europe they occupy a surface area as large as France, and the most flourishing meadows are found in Ireland, Spain and Portugal. They’re fundamental for maintaining biodiversity, be it vegetal or animal, and for the diet and well-being of the animals that feed on them. Naturally, they’re important for the production of cheeses that are good and healthy, rich with complex aromas and flavors. Yet in Italy these meadows are disappearing because of the abandonment of the countryside, soil consumption and the intensification of industrial farming activities.

This was the theme at Cheese today in the conference If natural meadows disappear. So-called stable meadows, better defined as semi-natural meadows, are lands created over the course of thousands of years by humans taking animals to graze. To maintain these meadows human activity, i.e. the continued grazing of herbivorous animals, is essential.

Decline

“In Italy the surface area of stable meadows is 32,000 square kilometers, but in the last 40 years that area has been reduced by a quarter,” said Giampiero Lombardi, professor of alpine culture at the University of Turin. The causes? In the plains it’s mainly because of urbanization, while in the hills and mountains the cause is the opposite: abandonment, the end of human activity, and therefore the disappearance of herbivorous animals. Nature reclaims these spaces. Piedmont has 30% of the meadows of northern Italy, partly thanks to a return of grazing activity in recent years. Elsewhere the situation is less positive: it’s still recoverable, but the alarm bells are ringing.”

Stable meadows guarantee vegetal biodiversity, and therefore animal biodiversity, as Irene Piccini, researcher at the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Turin, underlines: “The principal characteristic of stable meadows is that they are home to lots of insects, which are fundamental for pollination, and in turn these attract lots of other animals, like bird and other predators.”

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Farmer pours milk into can, in the background of a meadow with a cow.

What difference do the meadows make for cheese?

But what’s the difference between a cheese from stable meadows and a cheese made with the milk of animals who feed on silage, i.e. silo-stored plant derivatives? Giampaolo Gaiarin, food technologist and collaborator of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, explains: “Cheese is the synthesis of biodiversity. On average, a cow fed on corn is able to give birth 1.5 times, while cows living in alpine valleys may give birth seven times in their lifetimes, because their diet has a notable impact on their health. Then there’s the question of the aromatic and taste complexity, as well the healthiness of these cheeses: cheeses from stable meadows have less saturated fats, and more Omega-3s.”

Producer experiences

Also present at the conference were Claudia Masera, producer at Cascina Roseleto in Villastellone near Turin and Diego Remelli, farmer and member of the Latteria San Pietro cooperative near Mantova.

Claudia’s business began to reestablish the biodiversity of her fields in 2013 “We did it to improve the quality of the milk and to not have to rely on imports. We raise our Friesian cows on these meadows, and they’re healthier than ever. Our mascot is 19 years old and in great shape. We use the milk to make cheese and we also have an educational farm.”

Diego concludes: “Our dairy has 26 members and produces 70,000 wheels of Grana Padano a year. I have 130 cows and I was among the first to stop using corn silage. I’ve since dedicated part of our production exclusively to stable meadows.” And what happens then, if these stable meadows disappear? “A young person like me would lose the chance of having a future. A future which these stable meadows guarantee us, as well as all the flavors and traditions associated with them.”