Pecorino Cheese - It all starts with sheep. And there are plenty of them in Abruzzo. Drive through the countryside on any given day, and chances are, you're bound to run into a shepherd (replete with a crook), scampering dogs and a straying flock.
But the traditional "transumanza" - the twice-yearly migration of herds of sheep across hundreds of miles of rocky, mountainous terrain to warmer climes - is gone. These days the shepherd is most likely just moving his flock to a nearby pasture or taking it to a place where a tractor trailor will transport the sheep using a hydraulic lift.
In Abruzzo and other regions where lamb is eaten more commonly than beef, pecorino cheese (pecora means sheep in Italian) is still made using sheep's milk and little else, albeit with modern equipment. I was lucky enough to see the process on a trip with four other women during the "Italy, In Other Words" writing workshop I attended in Abruzzo last month.
Thanks to owner Giulio Petronio, we toured the Azienda Zootecnica Gran Sasso, a farm in the countryside near Castel Del Monte. He explained the steps involved in making canestrato, a pecorino cheese that derives its name from the reed baskets (canestri) that were once used to shape the cheeses and impart their design.
Once a day, the sheep's milk is heated in a large stainless steel vat and mixed with a natural rennet taken from a sheep's stomach. After the milk reaches about 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celcius), the mixture starts to thicken and lightly solidify. At this point, Zurap, a Macedonia native in charge of the process, offered us a spoonful. It was like slurping cream in a gel-like state - and not too different in taste from panna cotta.
Next Zurap broke apart the solid milky mass, and we watched as two wire "combs" swirled around the vat, creating clumps of curds.
Zurap grabbed a corregated plastic tube attached at one end to the vat and flipped a switch, guiding the curds into the forms. The liquid whey drained out the bottom, while the curds remained.
As more of the whey drained away, Zurap returned to fill the forms a second, and a third time.
Then he squeezed down on the curds, allowing even more of the liquid whey to fall to the bin below. The whey would later be heated again and used to make ricotta cheese (ri-cotta means twice cooked.)
The cheese needs to cool and rest a bit before it becomes solid enough to be released from the plastic mold into a salt water bath, allowing the cheese to form a rind. But before that, each mold is coded with numbers that identify where it was made and the specific batch of cheese.
Finally comes the aging, as the cheeses sit in a refrigerated storeroom. Some cheeses can be eaten immediately, and they will have a milder flavor.
The age of each cheese is found on the tags attached to the racks. For instance, this batch of cheese was made on 11-06-13. The first number refers to the year (2011), the second to the month (June) and the third number to the day it was made. Hence, this batch of cheese was made on June 13, 2011, a few days before we had arrived for our tour.
These cheeses were made in April. The few extra months of aging gives them a sharper taste. Mold that forms on the outside adds a unique flavor, but it will be washed off prior to sale. The oldest cheeses are aged no longer than one and a half years.
Unfortunately, we didn't get to taste the pecorino cheese while we were there. Giulio had to rush outside to tend to a mamma cow who was reluctant to enter the barn, where her newborn calf awaited.
As Giulio wrangled with his cow, we headed to nearby Castel Del Monte for an espresso at a bar in the center of town.
Turns out we weren't the first Americans to have sipped a cup of Joe here. George Clooney beat us to it, when he was filming "The American" here a couple of years ago.
After settling in at the cafe, we were surprised to see Giulio drive up in his truck, eager to catch up with us and offer a sample of his canestrato cheese.
Giulio also sells the naturally-colored sheep's wool to home knitters and to high-fashion houses in Italy, who use the wool to make sweaters and other clothes.
But for me, the cheese was the prize - golden colored, sharp and nutty-flavored, aged Pecorino.
Thank you Giorgio, and thank you Zurap, for giving us a look (and a taste) at how Pecorino Canestrato is made in Castel del Monte.