What do you get when you take a perfectly tasty sheep’s milk cheese and then bury it in a fossa, a pit made of volcanic ash filled with straw, seal it with planks and cover it in sand for four months?
Formaggio di Fossa!
In the Romagna region of Emilia Romagna, in the beautiful rolling hills of Roncofreddo, we visited Renato Brancaleoni, one of the only formaggio di fossa makers in his region. In early August, the sheep’s milk cheese is buried according to medieval tradition dating back to the 15th century when villagers were forced to hide their cheeses from looters and pillagers. The story goes that it did magically delicious things to the cheese while it was buried and thus began the tradition of fossa aging of cheese in the area. Like all traditional foods in Italy, there is a rich history that connects us to its sense of place. Local, traditional foods are the history of the people, and the land. This seems like a terribly storybook romantic view, but in my experience the pride of place and its food was very apparent in my travels and in working in an Italian kitchen. It was something we are really only beginning to see in Canada on such a wide scale. The cheese is removed from the fossa on November 25th, the day of the feast of St. Catherine and the cheese is available until it runs out.
We visited in late August when the cheese was in fossa. Thirty of my classmates piled into the medieval fossa “house” which was full to the brim with other cheeses they produce. The aroma was like nothing I have smelt before. It was overwhelming, with very little airflow and too many sweaty Canadians, I thought I may perish at that very moment, but at least I would have perished surrounded by delectable cheeses. We stood around the fossa pit which was covered in sand for over an hour, learning about the process and tasting some phenomenal cheeses.