In my previous post about our trip to Abruzzo and the Gran Sasso I promised to introduce you to a fourth generation transumanza shepherd. This story actually doesn’t take place in Abruzzo, but just across its border in Lazio, deep in the remote and little visited Monti della Laga range. It was August 15th and ferragosto, Italy’s national summer holiday. The country was in the midst of a major heat wave and we’d decided to head for higher ground for a few days to refresh ourselves in the cool mountain air.
We had departed that morning from Abruzzo’s Castel del Monte where we had found some Canestrato Castel del Monte, the delicious pecorino cheese made there and also purchased a few slices of Abruzzese Prosciutto crudo Maiale Nero to go with it. Our plan was to drive the winding mountain road up to Lago di Camptosto for a picnic and a swim in the clear alpine lake before crossing a higher pass into Lazio. With the exception of a few Italians who, like us, were escaping the heat (and Italy’s crowded beaches) there were very few travelers and we were able to find a lovely lakeside spot for our picnic.
After lunch our plan was to drive on to the mountain village of Amatrice, birthplace of spaghetti all’amatriciana, the typical pasta found in so many Roman trattorie. It’s made with guanciale (cured pork cheeks) and the pecorino cheese that has been produced in this part of the Apennines for millennia. But that’s a story for another post because a few kilometers up the road from Campotosto we came to the pass where, as is common at mountain passes all over Europe, there was a rustic refuge offering food and shelter and a shepherd with cheese for sale.
We stopped in to see Silvestro Scialanga, a shepherd and cheesemaker whose family has been bringing their sheep up to these high pastures to graze for generations. Silvestro was very welcoming and soon we were off on a tour of his beautiful aging room where wheels of pecorino cheese lined wooden shelves covering the cool stone walls. I’d noticed some thistles growing just outside and figured Silvestro was probably using those to make vegetarian rennet. When I asked him about it he proudly showed me his stash of dried thistle flowers as well as the other rennet he makes from sheep’s stomachs. Silvestro then proceeded to describe his cheese-making process and show us the tools of his trade including the lovely hand-made forks he uses to stir and break up the curd. Having raised sheep and produced cheese for years at Petraia, I was fascinated to hear him describe his cheese-making process and impressed with his resourcefulness.
Silvestro follows the age old custom of the transhumance, bringing his flock of 1200 sheep from their winter pastures in Ardea, just south of Rome to graze all summer in these mountain pastures near Retrosi. The sheep are milked by hand daily by him and a couple of helpers. And, in case we didn’t believe him, he showed us the muscles in his arms to prove it. There is, he says, no comparison between the cheese he makes in winter in Ardea and that he produces here in summertime. They are completely different. Nothing beats an alpine pasture for producing a great cheese.
One of the best ways I know to tell if a cheese is going to be good is if you can smell the animal in it. Silverstro gave us several generous samples of different cheeses to try and they all passed that test with flying colors. And the taste did not let us down either, they were all delicious. We bought a whole wheel of one of his younger cheeses (we wanted a high summer cheese) with a massive 1.5 kilogram container of delicious ricotta that was still warm. Italians use the word genuino to describe authenticity like this. Silvestro’s cheese was a far cry from the bland supermarket versions of pecorino produced on an industrial scale today in Italy. Cheese like this is almost impossible not just to find, but also to appreciate unless you actually meet its maker and visit the place where it comes from. It was a rare treat to meet Silvestro and taste his delicious cheese.
Silvestro pointed us toward a massive area of brush in the distance where were his sheep were having their post-prandial nap in the shade. Not wanting to disturb them we didn’t get any photos. By then we’d already taken a lot of pictures of other sheep and their shepherds that we’d passed along the way. You can see some of those in my previous post.
If you go: In the summer you will find Silvestro and his sheep at their summer pastures at 1350 metres at a pass in the Monti della Laga close to the Abruzzo border. The address is SS 577, Fraz. Retrosi, Amatrice (RI). He makes and ages his cheese in a stone house right next to the mountain refuge Locanda Cardito where steaming mounds of pasta amatriciana are heaped onto rustic wooden platters and served with Silvestro’s grated cheese and the local grilled meat this region is so famous for. They also have a a few guest rooms if you would like to spend the night. We were so full from our Canestrato picnic and Silvestro’s cheese to try it, but the locanda was packed and the food we saw coming out of the kitchen looked delicious. We’ll be going back for sure because I can’t imagine how an amatriciana could get much more authentic than one made here.