Twenty years ago there were just a few cheesemakers in the valleys of Montone, Rabbi, Bidente and Savio near Forli processing raw milk into forms of Raviggiolo from the Tuscan- Romagnolo Apennines. In spite of its wonderful qualities, and the fact that it was a historic cheese—it had even been presented to Popes as a gift in Renaissance times—Raviggiolo seemed destined to disappear for ever from the local gastronomic scene. A ridiculously extreme food hygiene dogma, adopted as a general rule across the whole agrifood sector, had regulated its preparation to the restricted confines of family houses where it was made semi-clandestinely for the exclusive enjoyment of a few friends and relatives.
It would have been a serious loss for our cultural heritage if it had not been possible to save Raviggiolo. It was customary to use milk from Pezzata Rossa cows on the Romagnolo side of the Appennines. Curds have always been made at the animals’ body temperature immediately after milking, the curds are then drained without being broken, salted on the surface and wrapped in fern leaves to help drain the whey and give a distinctive flavor. This method produces a delicate, sweet cheese, which is eaten fresh or, as Artusi wrote, perfect to make the filling for ‘Romagna-style cappelletti’.
Raw milk cheeses generally require long maturation times before eating because aging reduces health risks to a minimum. Raviggiolo is an exception and is different from any other cheese—though a raw milk cheese, it is eaten no more than five days after being made. In addition, its reduced storability limits production to the months between October and March, making it a typical cold season food. More than anything else, its short life is what has created problems for its survival, limiting the scope for transport and marketing at a distance from its area of origin.
It hasn’t been easy to move back from family consumption to the market. The problem—which is shared by all the other products made on a small-scale—is always the issue of regulations imposing the same requirements on artisans as for those working at industrial scale. It is obvious that someone transforming a few hundred liters of milk per month cannot bear the same costs as someone processing the same amount every week. Above all, an artisan working in a space and with equipment suitable for a large company, far from finding it essential, will see it as a pointless waste of resources which cannot be sustained.
Fortunately, the efforts to make regulations more responsive to the requirements of artisan cheesemaking and the persistent determination of mountain communities wanting to make Raviggiolo a symbol of gastronomic excellence within the Casentinesi Forests National Park, created sufficient interest to gradually increase consumption. Thanks to the cooperation between producers, local bodies and the hospitality industry, a virtuous circle has been created where increasing sales have given confidence to the rural sector, it has been possible to procure resources to set up authorized laboratories, and strict rules of production have been specified and just recently approved.
For all of us who believed in the revival of Raviggiolo, it is not only the economic and gastronomic aspects which are a reason for satisfaction. Like so many other mountain areas, that of the Apennines between Emilia and Tuscany has experienced continuous depopulation since the end of the Second World War. The success of Raviggiolo is encouraging. It shows that by integrating everyday traditional activities with small-scale top-quality products able to provide high returns, it is possible to keep the mountains alive and give new hope to small Apennine communities.
First published in La Stampa on September 5, 2005
Adapted by Ronnie Richards