Click for a complete list of dairy Presidia in Italy and in the world.
There are 70 Presidia dedicated to cheeses, in 13 countries around the world. They support high-quality, small-scale production at risk of disappearing, promoting places, recovering traditional crafts and production techniques and saving native breeds from extinction.
Each one represents its own unique world of cultures, dynamics and challenges, and each requires different strategies and solutions.
A difficult start
The first cheese Presidium was for casizolu, a cow's milk cheese from Sardinia. Though now famous around Italy, it was once little-known, a rarity from an island known mostly for sheep's milk cheeses. Casizolu is made on the slopes of a volcanic mountain, the Montiferru. Overlooking the sea, crisscrossed by drystone walls and covered with myrtle, broom and wild chamomile, its pastures are grazed by large copper-red cows, slow and stately.
The producers were initially perplexed by Slow Food. Frowning faces expressed a mix of worry and annoyance: What did we want to do? Why were we taking the trouble to give advice when they had been making their casizolu the same way for centuries? They didn't see why they should change a thing. "Casizolu is bitter because that's how we like it here," they told us, cutting off all our attempts to suggest improvements. In reality, casizolu wasn't bitter. It was an extraordinary cheese, but out of the four or five forms we tasted, some were excellent, some were average and some were flawed (too bitter or too acidic). This is normal for non-standardized production, but without making an effort to eliminate serious defects, products have no chance of succeeding on the market.
That day marked the start of a challenging journey towards improving the average quality without flattening out differences, raising the profile of this unique product and promoting the work of the producers. But soon Casizolu was appearing in the national media, being sampled at the Salone del Gusto and sold in the United States.
The Presidium had saved a tradition, protected a heritage breed and created a local economy.
Other times it has been necessary to establish a Presidium even when a cheese already has a wide market, or is already protected by a European denomination. This was the case for Roccaverano robiola and asiago.
Roccaverano is a small village in the Langhe near Asti which has given its name to one of the few historic Italian goat's milk cheeses, perhaps the best, and certainly the only one able to compete on a level playing field with the better-known French chèvres. This goat cheese risked losing its unique characteristics thanks to the PDO itself, the legislative tool intended to protect it.
In 2000, the PDO specifications allowed producers to make Roccaverano robiola with 85 percent cow's milk and the remainder from sheep's or goat's milk. This proportion was later reduced to 50 percent. The Presidium was created to protect the small-scale producers living high up in the hills, raising goats (including the local Roccaverano breed), producing a tiny amount of milk and processing it raw in the traditional way. Their robiolas change depending on the pasture, just like wines from great vineyards, but they cannot make a living by selling them at the same price as industrial Robiolas made from pasteurized milk.
Aged asiago made in the mountains is another example of a very specific Presidium, for cheeses made only from May to September in the Alpine pastures. Aged asiago is not the only Presidium to cover only summer production of a cheese, made using milk from grazing animals. During those four warm months, the herders care for their animals, defending them from wolves and bad weather, milking them and making cheese daily, sometimes twice a day, salting the forms, turning them, cleaning them and finally selling them. They must be veterinarians, foresters, cheesemakers and retailers, and yet in today's market their work is not valued at all.
The Presidia want to promote cheesemakers and herders, guaranteeing them a decent income, and to encourage institutions (park authorities, mountain communities, etc.) to provide them with comfortable shelter, water and electricity, and most of all to recognize the importance of their work and raise their profile.
Over the last 50 years, Italy has lost half of its traditional cheeses, five cattle breeds, three goat breeds and over ten sheep breeds, while another 32 are at risk of extinction.
There is only one way to save them: promote their products, their meat and their cheese. The French have already understood this; their PDOs rarely fail to link cheeses to local breeds. In Italy, meanwhile, there are no obstacles to the omnipresence of the Friesian cow, the Dutch breed perfectly suited to life in a cattleshed and able to produce 40 to 50 liters of milk a day (compared to 3 or 4 from the hardy Podolica).
When native breeds are at risk, but a significant nucleus still exists, as with the Langhe sheep, down to 2,500 animals, the Presidium protocol imposes the use of their milk. Sometimes, however, the situation is more dramatic: Burlina cattle numbers are down to 300, while Tortonese cattle and Sopravissana sheep are on the brink of extinction. Then the Presidium does not demand the use of their milk, but more realistically recommends the farming of native breeds, indicating them on the label as a way for producers to add value.
Click for a complete list of dairy Presidia in Italy and in the world
Each Presidium is based on a production protocol, a document that describes the whole production chain, from livestock diet to cheese aging, guaranteeing not only its quality but also that it is artisanal, traditional and sustainable. The protocol is the result of a long, lively debate among producers and is always written specifically for each cheese. There are also general guidelines that all Presidium cheese producers must follow.