Women cheesemakers: balance, fear, love

20 September 2021

This edition of Cheese has dedicated more attention to women cheesemakers than previous editions. A world of herders, farmers and entrepreneurs who work in every phase of the value chain: from the pastures where animals graze to the production of hay, to milking and cheesemaking, sales and marketing. They’ve decided to take on this difficult job with commitment and passion, and they know the importance of their role as guardians of their local areas and its traditional knowledge.

One of them is Angela Saba, winner of a Slow Cheese Award this year dedicated to Agitu Ideo Gudeta, who was also an immigrant woman cheesemaker from Ethiopia who was murdered in Italy last year.

We met some of these women cheesemakers at Biodiversity House, and heard their life stories. The path they’ve chosen contains incredible satisfactions, but it’s also a hazardous path. “If we were only concerned with revenue, nobody would do this job. What motivates us is above all a love for our land and our animals.”

Jessica – Searching for balance

Jessica Cravero works in Torriana, at the foot of Monte Bracco. Here, with her husband Claudio Biei she’s started a farm where they raise goats and produce a cheese called Toma ‘d Mombrach (toma being a generic name for cheese in many parts of Italy, and Mombrach being the name of Monte Bracco in the local dialect.)

“I have five children and 130 goats. If I had to define my relationship with my animals, I’d say I have 135 children, because I care for them the same way I care for my children. If you ask me how I balance my work and my family, to make it all sustainable, the only response I can give is that I try. My children are young, yet each one has their role. Beatrice and Caterina, the eldest, help me with the milking, give names to the goats, help to herd them… Leonardo is very young and just watches. My children help me manage the births of the goats too. We do everything together.”

“I was an urban girl once, but now I’ve got used to life in the mountains I love it here, just as I love my goats. Sure, it’s a hard life, we have to live in fear of wolves and there are often attacks. On Monte Bracco there are seven wolves, and we fear for the safety of our children and our animals, but despite this, we live on our alpine pastures as if we were on holiday.”

Greta – Love for the animals

Greta was born in 1995, and grew up with her twin sister in Boccioleto, where their father worked in a factory. “No generational inheritance of farming here. When I was 14 years old I started to work with a woman from Boccioleto to manage her five cows and 20 goats. I stayed with until just after I turned 18, when we decided to open our own business. The place we chose was completely abandoned. We started to buy cows, goats, to bring life back. Around 80% of the land where we live is forested. Only a small minority is meadows. Our goats deliver an ecosystem service, because they’ve cleaned up the area, but in the first few years they were not fully welcomed. Now they’re more accepted.”

“I started as an apprentice, without being paid except it knowledge. I fell in love with the goats, and then the cows, and slow Natascia and I grew up, as people and as a business. We found an alpine pasture in Carcoforo – they’re almost impossible to find nowadays, even though the ones that are rented generally don’t have cows living on them. We live in fear that we hear the dogs bark. I’m scared of wolves. Everything we do, we do it out of love for our animals; anyone who doesn’t do this job can’t really understand the relationship.” Today Greta produces a Slow Food Presidium, Macagn, and her work is testimony to that love.

Lara – Without agriculture the mountains die

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Lara Pennati lives in the most northern mountains of Piedmont, where she raises cows and makes cheese from their raw milk, including mascherpa, a type of ricotta that’s also on the Slow Food Ark of Taste. Speaking to us about her work, she talks about the ecosystem services she provides to the area: “Choosing to work with animals is a beautiful life choice, choosing to do so in the mountains means making a real effort to revitalize an area. Where agriculture disappears, the mountains die. There’s no cleaning, no ecosystem services. But the farmer can’t do it alone. We need to be helped to preserve healthy ecosystems, to not let them go wild.”

Francesca – The importance of planning

Veterinarian Francesca Pisseri, expert in agroecology and sustainable farm management: “My relationship with animals is based on empathy. The way these women tell their stories is so effective. I often hear people talk about rewilding as a positive thing, but from my point of view it’s not possible, unless we want to go through a phase of total chaos. Lots of situations are getting worse, and farmers and herders are not often listened to. We need to confront the question from the agroecological point of view, to get around the table, take a step back from our pre-packaged solutions and construct collective, participatory paths forward. Lots of areas are abandoned, or compromised, especially in the mountains. There’s a lack of balance. We need to apply an agroecological point of view to the environment.”

“Brining animals to pasture means giving them a good life. Some farms have stopped doing it or never did it. Our job is to help them develop plans to introduce pasture grazing, advise them on which breeds to raise and help with regarding the animals’ diets: good hay, good grass. We’re vets, agronomists and nutritonists. Diet is a fundamental aspect.”

“The concept of wellbeing which these women have spoken to us about is much more visionary that what the law accounts for. The law is lacking on this front. My concept of wellbeing is that an animal lives in harmony with its environment, and that is tied to the wellbeing of the farmer too. I like to call it integrated wellbeing.”