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.
The door to the fossa house – breathe your last breath outside!
Renato Brancaleoni was the most gracious host to our rowdy class, and invited us into his family home for one of the most memorable meals I had in Italy. He and his wife prepared a typical Romagnian lunch for us, with local wine, figs from his trees, homemade passatelli, olive oil from his mill and a million dollar view of one of the most wealthy countries in the world, the sovereign state of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino.
The Most Serene Republic of San Marino
Passatelli in brodo- a Romagnian specialty, much like spaetzle, where a dough of breadcrumbs and cheese is cooked in broth.
We woke at an ungodly hour to go to Tuscany. We visited Siena, a tuscan butcher, and a beautiful farm where we were treated to an italian barbeque with sausages and meat from the butcher we had visited. We sat at long tables and ate and ate and drank wine (frizzante, of course) and grappa and homemade limoncello. The best part of the night was the traditional Tuscan dancers and singers. Everyone sang and danced and drank. It was by far my favourite night in Italy. I will never forget it. Under the tuscan sky, dancing and laughing, eating and drinking. Just unbelievable.
I celebrated my twenty-eighth birthday in Italy. I had a full day of school, it was meat-day. My breakfast was beef tenderloin with fois-gras. Not too shabby.
After class, my wonderful friends made a huge meal and a birthday cake with nutella gelato on top. We had some celebratory wine (1.50euro a bottle!)
I was truly touched.
Our first field trip day was to the town of Roncofreddo in the Romagna area of Emilia-Romagna. It was our first real look at the Italian landscape beyond Parma and it was breathtaking. The road up the mountain to Roncofreddo was terrifying, our large tour bus was not designed to drive these types of steep inclines with sharp turns and cliffs and occasional oncoming traffic on a truly one-way road. We went on a tour of the Frantoio Baldiserri olive oil mill, through the olive trees and into the mill itself. The owner, a sweet older Italian man named Renato, explained the process of pressing and refining the oil. I bought some olive oil from the mill, for only 9 euros, he pumped the oil from the vats and bottled it right in front of us! Amazing!
Renato had us for lunch in his cliffside home that had a terrace which overlooked the Romagnan valleys, with the independent state of San Marino in the far distance on a mountaintop. It was magical. Renato had lived in this house since the day he was born and treated us like family in his home. We ate a three-course meal of prosciutto, home-made sausage, piadina, and the freshest tastiest figs I have ever seen as an antipasta, a stracciatella soup, and local chicken. We relaxed on his terrace and headed on our way to his pecorino cheese making shop. The process of making this cheese is really interesting, I’ll write more about it another day.
We went to a farm next and fed adorable cows hay and ate grapes off the vine and figs off the tree. Idyllic.
On the way back, stuffed and tired, our teacher stopped the bus at a typical Piadina stand. Piadina are a typical snack in the Romagna region. A piadina is a flatbread made with flour, lard, salt and water and is filled somewhat like a pizza, I had one with pomodoro and mozzarella, others had spinach and potato, some had tuna in them…very yummy indeed.
Insalata con manzo crudo
Insalata di Mare
Insalata di Spaghetti alle Vongole Nere
School Lunch at ALMA
Welcome to Italy! Wait in line for 3 hours! Hurry up and wait! Our first outing was to the mall in Parma to get cell phones. What an experience. I think we will learn very quickly that nothing gets done quickly in Italy.Anyhow, we got cell phones, mine is one of the few that isn’t activated yet, but in time. Patienza.
After the phone debacle, we went to downtown Parma for a few hours. It was just beautiful…exactly what I expected a european city to look like. Gorgeous. I will be returning. Chris and I went to a bookstore and bought a childrens novel to learn Italian. We’ll have book club with wine and try to plow through it. I have only finished a paragraph so far and forget what it was about so I will have to read it again…
We sat at a cute little restaurant and had caprese salads and vino bianco. My first tomato in Italy didn’t dissapoint. So sweet and perfect. Not mealy and dry like the ones at home. I liked them so much that I went to the grocery store later and bought a carton of cherry tomatoes and ate them like sweet sweet candy. If it wasn’t Sunday I would buy more, but the stores are all closed. How civilized, and annoying.
Instead of going out last night a few of us had a dinner al fresco with peaches and gorgonzola, a caprese salad, gnocchi with sage and butter, and bread and olive oil. This is the life.
This afternoon my friend Chris and I explored the countryside of Parma on our rented bicycles. What a way to see this beautiful country!
Third day in Italy, or is it the second? I am so screwed up with my internal clock I am having a hard time knowing what day it is.
We arrived in Bologna in the early afternoon on Friday and, having no trouble with any of our bags, boarded the sauna that is our tour bus. I was dreaming of a shower and a bed, but they had other plans for us…we turned into a restaurant overlooking a lake with huge cyprus trees lining the perimetre and ate a 3 course lunch. Now, on any other day I would be all for this, but we had been travelling for 20 hours and felt like death. Not to be rude, most of us ate everything that was given to us. I tasted delicious gnocco fritto, a risotto with sausage wrapped in prosciutto, and a soothingly cold semifreddo. So much food for such a queasy stomach, but I perservered.
We arrived at our residences and settled in. I had a short nap and we went to explore the town of colorno. We went for a delicious dinner at a local pizzeria and tried to order in Italian, luckily Tania was with us and helped us out quite a bit. We ordered octopus, calzones and vino rosso. The calzone was amazingly delicious, stuffed with artichokes, mozzarella, sausage, prosciutto. I actually teared up during the meal because it was so delicous. We headed back to the residence and drank 2Euro wine (!) until far too late.
I am here, I feel like we’ve just completed a leg of the amazing race. The sun is a blazing hot I have never experienced. From Bologna we made our way to ALMA, our cooking school in Colorno and we are just settling in, showering, and sleeping.