Manuela Ceruti is the daughter of a carpenter from Borgosesia, a small Piedmontese town known for its crafts and industry-its textiles have been famous since the late 19th century. Like many other young people, Manuela left Borgosesia to attend university, studying economics in Pavia. Until she reached her thirties, she believed her path would never bring her back to her home town. After graduating, she worked in Milan and Novara. During those years, she could never have imagined returning to Borgosesia, but, she recalls: “I worked for a university and in private companies, but what I thought for many years would be my future was starting to feel restricting.” Her life changed when she met a young man, Livio, who unlike her had never dreamed of leaving his home valley. Livio, a mountain herder, spends every summer with his mother in Alpe Lincée, a thousand meters above sea level, just a few kilometers from Varallo Sesia. He tends his 20-odd cows and 80 Vallesana goats, a native breed with an unusual coat, half black and half white, and makes Macagn cheese.
“It was really like going back in time: When he brought me to visit his mountain dairy and I tasted the cheese he had made with his own hands, I started to realize that outside of the urban routine I was used to, there was a different world, free, where the role of the family and the modest ideals, humbleness and genuinity of the people have stayed as they were in the past, in parallel with the distant world of the cities. We married, and I started working with them. More than my husband, my real teacher was his mother, Angelina. She lives in the Alps all year round, while we only go up with the children in April, then back down to the valley in September. She has no television and spends the day tending her goats, who stay in the mountain pastures with her. I tell her what’s happening in the world and she tells me what she thinks about it, often comparing today’s world with that of 50 years ago: Her wisdom never stops amazing me. The winter months are very tough up in the mountains, and the only way to have hot water is to heat it on the stove. When it snows, the solar panels get covered and it’s not possible to store enough energy to switch on even the few essential lamps, so she uses candles. All this doesn’t bother her, because her simple way of living frees her from the frustrations that we experience every day.” Manuela, now 34, takes care of dealings with the various authorities, helps in the house and sees to the cows and goats. Livio makes the cheese, and also milks the animals. “The actions and knowledge behind milking and making cheese have been passed down from generation to generation. For someone like me who wasn’t born in this world, i’s not easy, and takes time and care,” says Manuela. “Every day that passes I’m more and more convinced that I made the right choice. I know both worlds: The frenetic life where people seem like they’re acting a part in a role-playing game, and another, where instead they are part of a conciliatory and authentic structure, made up of other people and the nature that surrounds you. I’ve realized that this world, which many young people are fleeing from, is much closer to my way of seeing things.”
Manuela has two children, Marco, aged 3, who loves the mountain pastures and the livestock, and Greta, just a month and half old. Manuela and Livio are raising money to fix the road, still unpaved, that leads to the Alpe, because they want to live there all year round. They are also carrying out a very challenging task, without any kind of public support. The local municipality is leasing them around 80 hectares of mountain land, former pasture that has been taken over by the forest, and they are clearing it to increase the surface area that can be used for grazing. Once the trees have been cut down, they leave the land to rest for a year and then the following year sow a mix of local grasses suited to the altitude. To the unknowing visitor, the dense vegetation closing in on the roads that climb up through the Valsesia seem to herald the return of nature. Instead, the spreading forest is a sign of almost total abandonment. Where at the start of the 1900s there were over 500 mountain dairies, now there are only trees, wild boars, silence. Today around 100 dairies are active in the valley, including those in the mountains around Biella. Three of them belong to the same Slow Food Presidium as Livio, and since 2003 they have revived the traditional production of Macagn. Few of the old farmhouses, barns and cattlesheds are being restored, and as a result the space for grazing livestock is increasingly limited.
Stories like Manuela’s offer a reason for optimism, and we can only hope that more young people will choose to dedicate their life to carrying on the work and knowledge of their ancestors, defending and protecting the land on which they live.
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