Toma cheese from Valchiusella: grasses, milks and cows

08 August 2023

If you ever happen to spend a Sunday in the villages of Valchiusella, you might have the good fortune to see a parade of festive cows with splendid cowbells and colorful decorations.

They’ll be on their way to summer pastures, accompanied with pride by the herders who care for them, almost as if to say: we’re embracing the beauty of summer, and we’re part of it.

We are still in the Metropolitan City of Turin, above Ivrea, near the borders of the Aosta Valley. The cows you see parading in Valchiusella are mostly of the Valdostana Red Pied breed, one of the few Italian native breeds with a strong aptitude for milking. Also used for meat, it’s robust, making it particularly suitable for grazing at high altitudes, where it produces wonderful milk, transformed into equally marvelous cheeses.

Cheesemakers

Since Vinicio, Matteo’s grandfather, started making cheese long ago, agriculture in Valchiusella has changed. “During my grandfather’s time, there were about 50 producer families. Almost all of them had some cows to raise. Today, the number of farmers has drastically reduced to just over 10, but they have more cows.”

Matteo’s own business has evolved from that of a simple cheese retailer to an affineur or, better yet, a cheese ager. He clarifies, “I don’t fully identify as an affineur. Affineurs often go beyond what I do. They select the forms to purchase and often smoke or inoculate molds for seasoning. I prefer to call myself a cheese ager, or even better, a toma farmer. I buy all the production from the mountain dairies, including damaged forms, and I take care of the final phase: maturing and selling. I don’t add anything to the cheese; it already contains all its peculiarities. My task is to bring them out, to bring them to their best expression.”

Valchiusella toma: every milk is different

In Valchiusella, these cheeses are simply called toma, but Matteo Villa, in his company “Le Tome di Villa,” had the insight to give each one of them a name, to carry the signature of each individual cheesemaker.

Take Delfina, for example, with its “fresh and primitive” taste, an alpine toma produced with raw cow’s milk, named after its historic producer. Now, the cows belong to Dora, Delfina’s daughter, and the aging process lasts just 30 days, half of which are spent at Matteo’s aging room.

Beppe is the most flavorful among the fresh tomas. Soft and creamy, it has an intense aroma of the stable and animals, whether produced in winter or summer. Then there are Fulvio, Olga, Stefano, and even Bianco, which Matteo defines as a toma for the most daring, those willing to accept and appreciate the unpredictability of the flavors and aromas.

Le Tome di Villa at Cheese 2023

At Cheese 2023, you can find the stand of Le Tome di Villa, as always, on Affineur Alley. Come and discover their selection at the XIV edition of the event. We have a nice surprise: the Stefano toma, aged partly in Matteo’s cellars and partly in a natural cave in Borgofranco di Ivrea. Matteo assures us that the result is fantastic, and we can’t wait to try it!

A cheese for every pasture

Especially when produced in summer, these toma can reveal different worlds every day. The sunny or rainy days, the mood of the cheesemaker and their animals, and not least, the richness of the local herbs grazed by the animals.

Valchiusella may be small, just 25 kilometers long and 143 square kilometers in surface area, but it is an extremely rich territory in terms of plant varieties. This is where Mariangela Susigan from the Gardenia di Caluso comes to gather the wild herbs that make her gastronomic offer so unique and special: lovage, ajucca, wild garlic, ornithogalum, and many others, depending on the areas and periods of the year.

Each cheesemaker that Matteo buys toma from only uses the milk from their own animals and makes at least 4-5 transhumance migrations with their herds, gradually ascending to higher altitudes with the arrival of summer and then returning to lower levels as autumn approaches. As Matteo tells me, “It’s like embarking on a journey through milk, pastures, and seasons. If you savor a toma produced in July when the cows graze on the first grass of a pasture, you can feel the difference compared to the toma from the same cheesemaker produced just 10 days later.”

Matteo’s task, besides bringing out the best in these cheeses, is to make people understand everything behind each one of them, to convey the true value of the product.

Dependent on the climate

Of course, this method of work is not without risks, and the climate crisis has tested those who rely on pastures for their work. “Last summer, with its extreme drought, production was halved. This had repercussions on the winter production too, with hay prices almost tripling.”

Nevertheless, Matteo and the cheesemakers of Valchiusella have tightened their belts and managed to withstand these difficulties. “We increased the prices of our cheeses by about 10% to offset the rising raw material costs. But then, in April-May, after a drought that lasted for months, we feared having another summer like that.”

As we know, it turned out differently. The same rains that caused immense damage elsewhere in Valchiusella brought relief to the soil and the grass cover. However, this doesn’t change the fact that productions of this kind are heavily influenced by the climate.

It’s something to keep in mind when we taste a toma from Valchiusella, if we want to truly understand and appreciate its value.

by Silvia Ceriani, [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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