Valchiusella toma: herbs, milk and cows

02 August 2021

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.

Valchiusella is technically part of the Metropolitan City of Turin, above Ivrea, almost on the border with the Aosta Valley. The cows you see parading here are mostly Valdaostan Red Spotted Cows. It’s one of the few native Italian cow breeds that’s known mostly for its dairy products. While its meat is also eaten, this robust breed is particularly well-suited to grazing on high-altitude pastures, where it produces marvelous milk, dutifully transformed into formidable cheeses by their farmers.

Valchiusella toma: grass, milk and cows

Valchiusella Toma
Photo: Valerie Ganio Vecchiolino

In Valchiusella these cheeses are simply called toma, but Matteo Villa of Le tome di Villa has given a name to each one, so that they might bear the signature of the cheesemaker.

There’s Delfina, for example, with its “fresh and primitive” taste, a raw milk pasture-raised cheese that owes its name to its historical producer. Nowadays the cows belong to Dora, Delfina’s daughter, and the process of aging for Dora lasts just 30 days, half of which happen on site. Slightly more complex is the Beppe cheese, the most flavorful of the fresh cheeses here. Soft and creamy, it has an intense barnyard aroma whether produced in winter or summer. Then there are Fulvio, Olga Stefano and finally Bianco, which Matteo defines as the toma dedicated to daredevils who are ready to accept and appreciate the unpredictable nature of its flavor and aroma.

Above all when produced in summer, these toma cheeses are able to take you to different worlds on different days, depending on the weather on the day of the milking, the mood of the cheesemaker and their animals, and the flowering of the local plants. Valchiusella is small, just 25 kilometers long, but it’s extremely rich in its vegetal biodiversity. Mariangela Susigan of the Gardenia restaurant in Caluso has chosen this valley for the gathering of the wild herbs which characterize their gastronomic offering: lovage, rampion bellflower, wild garlic, Star-of-Bethlehem, and many others depending on the area and period of the year.

Where to find Valchiusella Toma at Cheese 2021

The toma of Valchiusella and Le tome di Villa are regular guests at the market of Cheese. Their cheeses will also be presented together with the Barolo wines of Bricco Sarmassa, San Giovanni and Cerequio in a Taste Workshop on September 17.

From grandpa Vinicio to Matteo

Photo: Slow Food Archive

Returning to the toma cheeses of Villa, Matteo tells us: “It all started in 1968 when by grandfather Vinicio decided to leave his job in the factory and dedicate his life to cheese. My family lived in Ivrea at the time, so we knew Valchiusella, it was close by. My grandpa rented some balmetto* in the area, using them to store cheese. At the time there were 45 producer families, and almost everyone had a few cows. Now there are just 13 or 14, but with bigger herds and organized farms.”

From Vinicio the business passed into the hands of Matteo’s father, Massimo, who gave it a new character, moving from simply selling cheese to the art of affinage. As Matteo explains, “I don’t see myself as an affineur. The affineur often goes beyond what I do. They choose which wheels to buy, often smoking them or inoculating molds. I’m simply an ager: I buy the cheese from the herder-producers, even the damaged ones, and I take care of the final phase, i.e. aging them and selling them.”

When Massimo died in 2007 the reigns of the business where passed to his wife Claudia, and to their children Elena and Matteo, who were unprepared for the job at the time. “Up until that time I’d helped my father here and there, but I’d not learned much. I’d just signed up for a course in agriculture , hoping to be able to contribute to the family business through new technologies. But my father’s death left us with a business to run that we didn’t have enough experience or knowledge to handle.”

Rolling up sleeves

But Matteo didn’t give up. He rolled up his sleeves and persevered in teaching himself without the aid of an expert, becoming a cheese ager and learning to appreciate all the variety of toma cheeses made locally. His mission was clear: “I like to be able to give a different experience every time to those who come to buy our cheeses. To help them understand that these cheeses are each an individual journey which reflect weather conditions, the plants of the meadows and the animals that graze on them most of the year. And obviously the fundamental work of the producers. This is all possible at Cheese. I like to share the value of these products, and to do so by speaking to people who are interested in understanding them. So we’ll see you at Cheese from September 17 to 20!”

by Silvia Ceriani, info.eventi@slowfood.it

*Around  Borgofranco d’Ivrea, along the road towards the Aosta Valley, we find the Balmit (Balmetto), a series of natural cellars (there are more than 200) among the morainic deposits of the Mombarone massif, in use since ancient times for the conservation of cheese, cured meats and wine.

Cover image: Daniel Nanescu