From Alpine Huts to Urban Tables

Just over an hour’s drive from the center of busy Milan lies another world: Not just the splendid mountain landscape of the Orobie Alps, but a different way of living entirely, with alpine cheesemakers living closely with nature’s seasons to produce the wonderful Bitto cheese appreciated in the city’s delis.

In the Gerola and Albaredo valleys, herders set off in the summer from the lowest Alpine huts, at 1,400 meters above sea level, guiding their animals from meadow to meadow up to 2,000 meters. Grazing their cows and goats freely in these remote mountain pastures, they wake early each morning to hand milk them. The milk is taken straight to their calècc, a rustic circual stone construction with a tent roof, and poured into a cauldron hanging over a fire. The herders add rennet, and wait until they see the curds forming which they remove and place in wooden molds to set.

As each pasture is grazed, the herders collect their few possessions, load their cauldron on their back and move up to higher ground, bringing the cheese back to the valley at the end of the season. They follow the rhythm of the animals and the sun. They spend the summer in solitude, repeating a series of measured and precise gestures that are the result of millennia of wisdom and experience. These are proud people, with visceral connections to this tradition, and they have been fighting to preserve it for years.

For now they have succeeded. A consortium and Slow Food Presidium for safeguarding historic Bitto has been founded, and a rigorous production protocol drawn up. Communal premises for aging the cheeses in Gerola Alta have been renovated, and are used to mature the cheese for three to four years (although some for as long as ten years). The herders’ Bitto can be tasted and bought here, or reserved and left to age.

To support Italy’s traditional livestock herders, whose way of life is at serious risk, Slow Food has established the “Resistenza Casearia” (cheese resistance) buying group, officially launched at the 2010 Salone del Gusto. The project was created to support these cheesemakers by providing an easy point of sale, through bulk acquisition of the Bitto cheese (and the cheeses of other herders), which is then available for purchase by interested customers. Customers can purchase the product from Slow Food at a reasonable price and sellers have access to a market which would otherwise be difficult to reach. In just one month Slow Food paid a fair price (€16/kg) for over 1.6 tons of cheese from the Shepherds’ Fiore Sardo and Castel del Monte Canestrato Presidia and food communities of herders in the Central Apennines in Abruzzo and Molise. The buying group will continue its activities in 2011 and will highlight their work at Cheese, where particular attention will be focused on herders in Italy and around the world.

Tasting one of Italy’s best cheeses is the simplest and most pleasurable way to guarantee the survival of the way of life of these extraordinary herders, who are not only protecting a symbol of Italian culture but also ensuring the continuation of the mountain life.

For more information on Resistenza Casearia (in Italian):

Photo: Alberto Peroli

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