CHEESE 2001 COUNTDOWN – A Heritage Halved

28 May 2001

In Italian Cheese (Slow Food Editore, 2001), we managed to catalogue 201 traditional cheeses. An impressive figure, but haven’t experts always maintained that there is more than 400 cheeses in Italy? This is in fact confirmed by the 1991 edition of the Atlante dei prodotti tipici: i formaggi (“Atlas of Typical Products – Cheeses”), compiled for INSOR by Corrado Barberis and Graziella Picchi. The volume, still indispensable for anyone exploring Italy’s cheesemaking heritage and, indeed, our own source of inspiration, lists exactly 403 types. Is it possible that the number has halved in eight years? We think not, even though standardization has for some years been causing a steady reduction in small-scale local cheesemaking
The remaining cheeses are the result of a harsh process of natural selection in that, over the centuries, only the finest cheeses have survived. These are the ones that add most value to the livestock farmed in their particular territory. Yet when the global market began to alter consumer perceptions, the long triumphant products of centuries-old skills went into decline. Generally speaking, traditional cheeses are made in mountainous or outlying areas by individual families producing small quantities, often in conditions that may not be scrupulously germ-free. In contrast, globalization demands large quantities, competitive prices, a continuous production cycle and guaranteed hygiene, so that, in practice, EC legislation has enshrined the interests of food multinationals in community law. Consumers have been willing accomplices. They have betrayed local products for the siren song of the hypermarket’s refrigerated counter. The cheeses people buy in such outlets are sanitized, odorless and made from pasteurized milk by machines that spit them out as if they were die-cast. If we take into consideration industrially produced cheeses – types whose characteristics have been altered irrevocably to adapt them to market demands – we would thus go well beyond 400 types. Then come cheeses that are produced by a single cheesemaker who has no desire to market them more widely and seasonal cheeses.
But the fact is, however, that many other types have simply disappeared in recent years. For decades, it has been impossible to obtain Montebore dei Colli Tortonesi, a cheese frequently mentioned in the literature, or Solandro Trentino, Slattato Marchigiano, Granone di Lodi, Caprino del Fara from Lazio, Campania’s Cacio Peruto, Caprino di Farindola from Molise or Basilicata’s Pecorino di Zaccuni or Padraccio. Marciano has disappeared from Calabria. Calcagno is only a memory in Sicily. And so the list goes on. The cries for help coming from farmhouse cheesemakers, especially in the South, are ominous. Small-scale producers have great difficulty in marketing their cheeses for there are simply no appropriate outlets. While the Salone del Gusto in Turin showed that the demand for high quality cheese exists and is far from being a market niche, these products still find it extremely difficult to acquire visibility, accessibility and consumer appeal. You can’t make a living out of the Salone del Gusto alone. Consumers have to be informed and prompted to make choices that overcome the temptation to take the line of least resistance. If only they looked, ordinary cheese lovers might even find they have, only a few kilometers from home, a farmer who makes a fine ewe’s milk cheese, for example. Round the corner, there could be a serious delicatessen. In fact, the maître at their favorite restaurant may only be waiting for an excuse to provide a decent cheeseboard. “Never say die”, is the watchword.
However, it is legitimate to ask, “Is it worth going to these lengths?” especially when you end up spending more. We believe it is. Compare an industrial cheese with one skillfully made using unpasteurized milk from local cows. The “taste gap” is immediately apparent, even to an inexperienced palate. All consumers have to do is pay a little more attention to what they are eating and they will soon realize that there is a world of difference. The industrial cheesemaker is looking to make money. The artisan wants first and foremost consumers who are knowledgeable, respectful and passionate. And whose reward will be sheer gastronomic pleasure.

This article is an abridged version of the preface to Italian Cheese (Slow Food Editore, 2001).

Piero Sardo, a gourmet and f&w writer, is a Slow Food vice-president and manager of the association’s Presidia Office

Translated by Giles Watson

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