I met Tillo Gelpke for the first time at the Salone del Gusto in 1998. He is a hectic, excited speaker, and as he described his cheeses, he simultaneously served wine, yelled jokes in Italian and English to passersby, and proffered slices of the sheep-milk cheeses of his family’s farm. The cheeses I tasted at Tillo’s stand intrigued me – there were your traditional Tuscan sheep’s-milk varieties, but also some grey-crusted liquid-filled wonders more reminiscent of a fine Taleggio than something coming from south of Florence.
At that time I was studying cheese on a year-long Watson fellowship, visiting and working at different dairies around Europe and North Africa. My chance meeting at the Salone with Tillo – and the unusual cheeses I tasted – remained in my memory. A few months later, I went to find him at Fattoria Corzano e Paterno. The Fattoria is a family-run farm situated on a ridge of hills just to the south of Florence, it encompasses a small valley filled with crumbling farmhouses and noble villas. The land was once two seperate family estates, that of the Corzanos and that of the Paternos, the two estates were united by Tillo’s Swiss father in the 1970s. Corzano e Paterno produces very fine wines as well as olive oil and cheese. The dairy is located toward the southern ridge of the farm, a part of the old stable complex of the Paterno half of the estate. Tillo tends the farm’s 300 sheep with the assistance of a Sardinian shepherd (the sheep are Sardinian too), and the milk is transformed daily into cheese and ricotta.
Following Tillo’s instructions, I showed up at the dairy early one weekday morning. Toni Ballerin, the woman who makes the cheese at Fattoria Corzano e Paterno, greeted me at the door and welcomed me in. Dairies in the morning – with their profusion of steam and rich fermenting smells – always have a glow of warmth and industriousness. Toni fit into that environment perfectly, robust and rosy-cheeked, with classic English features that look like they’ve been copped off a biscuit tin (her mother is English, and her father Venetian). Thus began a two-month-long ‘stage’ learning from one of the most innovative and talented cheesemakers I know.
The crowning achievement of the Corzano e Paterno dairy is a cheese called (charmingly) ‘Buccia di Rospo’, which means ‘toadskin’ in Italian. This was the cheese that had so impressed me at the Salone del Gusto. Buccia di Rospo is a glorious cheese – an inspired play on Tuscan traditional pecorino taken in a moister, more continental direction. The crust is dark grey, and when it is ripe the crust bursts with the liquified, ripe cheese.
The challenge in making a cheese like Buccia di Rospo is the aging. Reaching that liquefied edge without arriving there too quickly, thus avoiding a chalky, unripe center. The aging room must be humid enough to encourage the abundant surface molds, yet not too warm that the cheese would over-ripen and collapse in its own weight. The secret to creating a perfectly aged Buccia di Rospo lies in the maintenance and control of the aging process; the cheese must be examined and responded to almost every day. What distinguishes Toni’s cheese-making is her visceral sense of the art, her use of hands and feeling to mature a cheese and move it through its various stages. No cheese is made and then abandoned, every day it is turned, blackish patches of ‘cat’s fur’ mold are patted down, seepage is gently scraped off, and sticky undersides are separated from the mesh racks to prevent a soggy crust. Toni goes into the dairy alone at times, she needs – in her words – to ‘feel’ how her cheeses are. To smell deeply the odors of the aging room, to lightly caress the marzolino to see if they have soft spots, need turning, or to brush off a few grainy beads of salt. This care and attention makes masterful cheeses like ‘Buccia di Rospo’ possible, although the care and attention that Toni gives to each individual form limits the number of cheeses she can produce.
Toni brings to the art of cheese-making a rare creativity and curiosity to try things new. In my stay at Corzano e Paterno she was constantly questioning me about my limited experiences – once when a batch of acid curd cheeses went wrong she encouraged me to make a call to an Irish cheesemaker I knew to ask advice and talk cheese. Another time, after showing her some pages I had printed out from an English cheesemaker’s site, she wanted to know more, and started to explore the Internet.
Toni’s great innovative undertaking in my stage at Corzano e Paterno was the transformation of an abandoned cantina outside her house (incidentally, an old monastery with Etruscan foundations) into a Roquefort aging cave. A French wine expert, passing through, had noticed that the open water of a well in the corner of the cantina combined with the natural updraft of air through the entrance made it an ideal place for aging sheep’s milk blues. That observation inspired Toni to research – reading all the books and looking up web-sites for information about just how it is done.
In the afternoons, after the last batch of ricotta had been scooped out of the cauldron and the dairy work was done, we worked in the cantina, cleaning the floors (but not the walls, which Toni wanted to keep natural to encourage native molds) and setting up the cradle-like shelves to support the blue cheeses. Toni’s grander goal was to produce a Roquefort-style blue cultured the old-fashioned way – with crumbs of moldy bread tossed right into the curd. However, her tentative experiments had yielded a cheese too blue and piquant, and further refinement was needed. Each Roquefort-style cheese we made was different – each pierced by hand with a long wire, and the opening air-entry holes carefully maintained to ensure regular blueing.
In the two years since my brief sojourn at Corzano e Paterno, Toni has refined her blue, and the dairy has won one of Slow Food Toscana’s prestigious ‘Artigianato’ awards. Tillo sells the cheeses around Florence and environs, and ‘Buccia di Rospo’ has quite a following among Italian gourmands. Tillo was on hand at Cheese 2001 (at stand K1 in the market) selling cheeses and dosing out tastings of some of the Fattoria’s Chianti wine. He speaks English, Italian, German, and French (sometimes all at once) and those cheeses may just convince you – as they did me – to make a serendipitous trip down to Florence.
Anya Fernald, winner of a Watson Fellowship for the study of artisan cheese in Europe and Africa in 1998, has worked for the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia in Sicily. She currently works for Slow Food.
In the photo: two of Tillo and Toni’s sheep