Say Cheese!

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Yesterday was our day on the farm. Our first day here we met a local guy, Jerry, who was standing out in front of a restaurant greeting prospective diners – he’s the one I wrote about earlier who left his post and took us to sample proscuitto. We’re not sure how good he is at his restaurant job, but he was very friendly. And we did go back to the restaurant.

We’ve seen him around town with other tourists showing them around, and he always says hello, making us feel at home. Well, he told us about an organic farm outside of town where they grow or raise all their own food, have a small restaurant, and also make cheese. We decided to look into it.

Podere Il Casale

The farm is between Pienza and Montepulciano and off the grid and GPS. We turned down one winding dirt road after another – all with sweeping views. The couple who run the farm, Ulisse and Sandra, came from Switzerland about 25 years ago with a dream of having a farm in Italy. They bought a fixer-upper and had one goat and one sheep. Now they have 5 kids, 120 sheep, and dozens of goats and bottle their own wine and olive oil, grow all the crops for themselves and their restaurant, and make cheese. What a fabulous and inspiring story to follow your dreams.

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Cheesemaking 101

imageWe signed up for Cheesemaking, which was an almost 3 hour demonstration in the farm’s “cheeserie.” We were the only guests so all was very hands on. Ulisse started at the beginning – milking the sheep and goats. We even got to taste the raw milk. Then the milk was added to a big vat with some other ingredients and slightly heated to start the acidity process – growing bacteria, which is how cheese is made. While we waited for our cheese to get more solid, Ulisse showed us cheeses in the cold storage of various ages, consistencies, and seasons – which all make a difference in how the cheese tastes. A cheese produced with sheep’s milk in the winter will taste different from a cheese produced in spring, even from the same sheep since they have a different diet.

Once the curd started to separate from the whey, more serious stirring began so we would have consistent and even chunks of cheese. Once hard enough (but still pretty jiggly), Ulisse could scoop up the curds in forms, which could be packed into a warmer for further bacteria growth – or cooled immediately to keep the cheese “as is.” The cheese also would continue to harden. The whey would be used either to make ricotta – or given to the pigs to fatten them up. We tasted each step and even had a small cup of whey.

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Lunch on the Farm

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All that cheesemaking makes you hungry, so we headed to the restaurant for the Vegetarian Tasting Menu. We started with a salad of just-picked vegetables all grown on the farm, dressed with the farm’s olive oil, and washed down with wine from the farm’s Sangiovese grapes. I could have stopped there it was so delicious.

But next came a cup of vegetable soup – perfect because it was cold and rainy. Then homemade pasta made of spelt, a type of wheat they grow on the farm – with a little ricotta on top – just like we had seen being made. Heavenly creamy.

Naturally, we ended with a cheese course! Ulisse joined us and brought a platter of all the types of cheeses he makes. It was just like a wine tasting. We started with the youngest cheese and worked our way around the platter to the oldest, stinkiest cheeses. All of these were from the same sheep and goats, so the difference was in how the cheesemaker changes up the process or additional flavors he adds. The professional who ages the cheese and adds these flavors – such as wine or herbs – is called the “affineur.” Frank has been studying videos of this since we left and may try this at home!

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Man About Town

While we were talking, Ulisse asked how we heard about them. They are pretty much off the beaten path (although they have been written up in the travel section of the NY Times). We told him about the man in front of the restaurant. He lit up and said, “Ahh . . . Jerry! Si Si!” Then called over to his wife – “Frank and Christy know Jerry!” It was like we were instant locals. It is a small world after all.

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