Milk and Saffron

25 Nov 2005

We are so used to having a good portion of our favorite cheese sitting on a plate on the table that we don’t think twice about stabbing it with a fork and getting our teeth into it as soon as possible. And yet, although it may seem hard to believe, there is much to say about this foodstuff that most of us take for granted, especially when it comes to saffron cheese.

The Lanini brothers run a small dairy in Ceseggi di Sellano in the province of Perugia in Umbria, producing local sheep’s cheeses. The number of sheep is quite small, just 200 head, all from the Sopravissana breed, which originated from a cross between the Vissana ewe and the Spanish Mérinos ram in the second half of the 18th century.

Making cheese isn’t easy, especially if the cheesemaker has quality at the top of his list of values: quality starts with the animals themselves and the environment in which they live. That of the Val Nerina is as pure as they come: the eyes are drawn by its gentle, verdant hillsides and sparkling blue. Luca, one of the brothers, assures us he has never regretted leaving the city to live surrounded by such a spectacle. The valley is filled with aromatic herbs and an ideal spot for cheese production; the animals are raised semi-wild and give excellent milk for cheesemaking. The fresh cheese made by the Lanini brothers is not just a fine example but has a very unusual ingredient in its preparation – saffron. It is niche production: this type of cheese can be bought only from their welcoming home by private purchasers, it is not available in any supermarkets.

It is made from about 90 liters of sheep’s milk each day, part coming from the previous evening’s milking, part from that morning’s. The milk is heated slowly to 36°C in a stainless steel pan. The saffron pistils are previously diluted in hot water and left to rest for two hours, giving a resulting liquid that is a very bright reddish color. This is added to the warm milk, turning it a pale orange. Then the rennet is added. The brothers use lambs’ rennet, in paste form, which is first dissolved in water and filtered. Coagulation takes 30-40 minutes.

Since the saffron tends to rise to the surface, Luca prefers to stir the coagulant to keep the saffron evenly distributed and then break down the curds with a curd knife. The curds are then separated from the whey and placed in small plastic moulds where they are lightly pressed by hand and turned four to five times to help the whey drain out. When the consistency of the cheese is firm enough to hold its shape it is ready for eating and is removed from its containers. The Lanini brothers advise serving it on its own, or with a light dusting of pepper and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, Umbrian of course. Either way the delightful scent of saffron percolates through, adding to the piquancy of the cheese and the harmonious flavors from the milk.

The idea of adding saffron to a young cheese like this has roots which go back a long way and are linked with the region’s history. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, production of saffron was one of Umbria’s most flourishing activities, particularly around Cascia, in the ancient Duchy of Spoleto. Here saffron markets were held where the spice was traded by merchants who had bought it in the surrounding districts. In more recent times, given that the picking and processing of saffron has to be carried out completely by hand, there were unfortunately few wanting to invest in its cultivation.

But now, thanks to regional incentives, around 30 growers have started to plant the bulb once more. It grows to a plant of around 35 cm, with a remarkably beautiful, pinkish-lilac colored flower. It is the stamens, three per flower and of a deep red color, that give the “yellow gold”, the most expensive spice in the world. It takes 150,000 flowers to produce one kilo of dried stamens, and the price of saffron is around 25 euros a gram.

The addition of saffron gives a cheese that is simply outstanding: the flavor of fresh sheep’s milk and the iodine-like aroma of saffron evoke Umbria’s ancient, local traditions and link the cheese irrevocably to its provenance. By returning to this simple marriage of ingredients hailing from a valley redolent of its past, the Lanini brothers implicitly offer a chance to sample a taste of the past too.

Erica Galardo is a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo near Bra, Italy

Adapted by Maureen Ashley

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