Cheese Travels with Jim Wallace

A journal of travels to explore the old ways, history, and process. Visits with the cheese makers and photographs of the surrounding beauty. Jim teaches traditional cheesemaking in the US and can be contacted via ...

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Western Massachusetts USA, United States
I have been visiting cheese makers throughout Europe for many years now, researching the old ways of traditional cheese making . I currently teach several workshops on traditional cheese making in the US and can be contacted at ... ____ In my recent past I have traveled the wild places of this planet making photographs and fine prints. The blend of my cheese travels and making photographs combines the best of both worlds.

September 15, 2009

Sept 8-9 On to Italy and the Bitto Cheese

Sept 8 was a long day of driving through the mountains of Switzerland and over the mountains to Italy. It was a long but beautiful drive with perfect weather. The most beautiful part was the drive from Lugano to Lake Como along Lake Lugano and its small villages perched high above the lake. We finally arrived in the Valtellina east of Lake Como, where we were met by our friend who promotes cheese for the Bitto region.

Sept 9 is another very long day beginning with a visit HIGH in the mountains. Our Italian friend is taking us to visit one of the great Bitto producers of the region and the drive is about 27 km as we gain about 1900 meters in height. We drive for about an hour to Passo San Marco followed by another long walk to the farm over very rough terrain. As we approach the farm in the predawn hour we see a single generator light at the milking station far below us on the pasture and another 15 minutes walking/sliding down the wet grassy slope brings us to the herd being milked. The cheese Bitto is unique to a very small part of this valley and is known for its very dry curd and ability to be aged for many years.

Once the milking is finished, the milk is carried down to the farm and transferred to the copper kettle suspended on an arm that can be swung off and onto the fire, a wood fire is lit, the milk kettle swung over it and heated. When the proper temperature is reached the kettle is swung off the fire and rennet is added. The milk is allowed to set still for a long coagulation. This is time for the cheese makers first real break of the day and we head inside for coffee and hot milk with bread. The bottle of grappa is offered for the coffee and I accept (hey, its cold out there).

Following the break, the curd has coagulated and is cut very fine with an aggressive use of the cutting tool (Spino) followed by a long stir at a higher temp. This is what makes the Bitto such a long aged cheese.

The cheese maker applies his skills and experience to know when the curd is at the point to move from the vat to the forms for pressing. When his decision is made he readies the cloth, removes his shirt and dives into the vat for the curd.

Once he has the right amount of curd in the cloth and drained, he transfers the cheese to the awaiting molds where he presses by hand into the shape. The cheese is now allowed to rest for a few minutes to consolidate before a board and the weight of a stone press the remaining whey from the curd. The new cheese must be kept warm to allow the bacteria to continue their work for at least another day before salt is added.

Once the Bitto is made the remaining whey is once again placed over the fire, more wood added and the ricotta process is begun. This is now a fierce fire and the whey heats quickly, a dose of acid is added and then finally some more milk is added to enrich the ricotta. The resulting flocculated curds are left to rest while they rise to the surface where they will be ladled to the waiting forms. It is now time for us to trek back up the mountain to our car and the long drive down the mountain.

The mornings work is now over and the cheese maker will have lunch and a short break before he gathers the cows again mid afternoon and starts the process over again. The day begins about 4AM and goes until 11PM from late May to mid September in the mountains. The cows are then moved down the mountain to the village where they and the cheese maker will spend the winter.

The afternoon is another wonderful expedition into one of the hidden treasures of Italy. We are introduced to one of the patriarchs of perhaps the finest food shop in the Valtellina. As we enter the shop we are amazed at the resources collected here: Funghi, Vino, Aceto, Formaggio, Pastas, Grappa (oh yes, Grappa) etc,etc. The shop has been in this family for 3 generations and the next generation is definitely in training to continue this tradition. We were quite amazed by what we saw in the main shop but then our guide smiled and said follow me ... follow him on a tour of one amazing room after another. Rooms of special cheeses, rooms of pastas, one of grappas of various ages (and prices). This was great but then he said come down to the cellars. At least 3 levels down each one with different temperatures and several degrees cooler than the previous. Each one for storing different wines until we reached the lowest level where I saw wooden cases stacked with names that I recognized but know I can not afford. Along the way in niches and corners were old wine presses and other items that transformed the cellars into a museum. Casks set into the wall (perfect keeping temps) that at one time dispensed the wines into large bottles for the customers to store in their own cellars. Wheels of carts that brought the wine before trucks. Old wine presses, bottling apparatus, ancient bottles, etc. When we climbed out of this wonderful cellar, we began another descent but this time into the world of Formaggio. The final level took us to a room full of Bitto cheese ranging in age from 1-10 year old cheeses.

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