How a cooking vacation in Tuscany re-kindled a passion for cheese
How often do you hear a writer bemoaning our processed, plastic diets? How far have we strayed from simple ingredients which now appear distant, rare and expensive like jewels. We once cast them aside in search of convenience. Now we are beginning to value nature’s true worth.
Why am I waxing lyrical in this way? I have just returned from a cooking holiday in Tuscany that began as one thing but has actually had a profound transformative effect on me. I booked it for a laugh. I fancied learning a little more about Italian food with a couple of girlfriends and Tuscany seemed a great choice of destination.
I didn’t bargain for having a road to Damascus moment in southern Italy, that’s for sure. We were sitting around in the cooking holiday villa during an al fresco lunch, eating our homemade ravioli we had just produced. The conversation, perhaps unsurprisingly turned to the Italian passion for cheese. One of the chefs suggested we visited one of his family members who makes organic Pecorino cheese. To be honest I was interested but not gripped but went along with the idea.
Watching the flock of sheep wandering in from the Spring countryside across the Tuscan terrain was one thing. Being seduced by the rhythmic milking of contented ewes was quite another. This is not a tale of romance and the impracticalities of cheese making in Surbiton. May I hasten to add, his is not a cri de Coeur. I am not bemoaning the fact we have largely forgotten the simplicity of using fresh produce to make unadulterated and extremely fine cheese on a day-to-day basis. It’s just a polemic for how we must appreciate the simple ingredients in life.
The farm we visited actually uses large cavernous vats and enormous whisks which rush through the milky white curds. They direct whey into another vat where ricotta is made. This is semi-industrialised production. Yet it is evident cheese making is a labour of love and part of an historic tradition that has never been lost; although it did come close in the 1960s.
Natural cheese making is really a miracle. The moisture is expelled by the cheese itself and forms a mould on the top that is scraped away. It’s not something you can hurry or transform; it is what it is and there’s an end to it.
Gone are the days where mani calde or warm hands, were necessary. Still, cheese making requires experience, knowledge and understanding. Things I began to acknowledge would make a difference to my own relationship with food. Certainly I never expected a simple cooking holiday to have such a philosophical impact on me.
I realised many Italians in the country still keep sheep and goats and make their own soft, ricotta style cheese every day which they serve in the afternoon with quince preserve, walnuts or just with fresh rustic bread. Too often we are looking for the latest trends, something different, something exotic. I believe quite strongly that sometimes we should just seek out the best, freshest and simplest ingredients.
Pecorino is aged in cellars and the cool, slightly sweet musty air signals all is ripening well. Balze Volterrane cheese has its rind rubbed with oak ash and olive oil. It has a reminder of the artichoke seeds that are used in the wild artichoke rennet which is used traditionally all over the Mediterranean.
The cheese I ate in Spring in southern Tuscany was something more than product. It spoke of the people, of the terrain of the knowledge and passion of this region. If you import and pasteurize milk you make a bland cheese if you allow the cheese to live and breath you have something very different.
I guess it’s not just the cheese that needs to feel like this. It’s strange what a cooking holiday in Tuscany can unleash. Don’t be shy why not book one and see just what you might discover about yourself and things you may well have taken for granted.
Flavours Holidays is a passionate, specialist tour operator offering quality cooking holidays in handpicked Italian locations.