Cheese from the Pit

Mercato Publico
Covered Market in Ancona, Italy

Yah, that sounds none too appealing, right? Cheese from the pit? Unless of course you are a hardened cheese aficionado who likes ’em gooey, stinky, moldy and any other variety that makes mere mortals go: ewww….

With the Formaggio di Fossa, it is actually not all that bad. Don’t think of some dank smelly, crusted hole in the ground: instead, think of a pleasant, regular, straw lined hole in the ground, where the cheese (it can be a sheep’s milk cheese, a cow’s milk cheese or a mix), wrapped in canvas bags, is carefully stacked on wooden planks, before the pit is covered and sealed and the cheese allowed to mature for 80-100 days – the technical term is anaerobic fermentation, and the 80 days is the legal minimum, the 100 days the legal maximum. You see, the cheese enjoys DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status, and that means there are some stringent rules that govern exactly how and where the cheese is produced.  The pits are dug in soft tufa rock in the Marche Region of Italy, on the Adriatic Coast, around the town of Sogliano al Rubicone – on the Rubicon, that very same river Julius Caesar once crossed, yelling “alea jacta est, suckers!” . Ancona is one of the major towns here, and that is where I got my cheese from the pit.

Pecorinos
Cheese from the Pit: clockwise from top left: young Pecorino, Pecorino di Fossa, aged Pecorino

In this case, it was a sheep’s cheese, which made it a Pecorino di Fossa, and of course the pecoras have to be from the Marche region before you get the coveted DOP seal. The pits are very carefully prepared: straw is burned in them to get rid of the damp air and to reduce bacteria that may interfere with the ripening process. The pits are lined with straw for insulation and that straw is kept in place with an intricate frame of reeds and wooden hoops – it all has to be just so. The feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, November 25, is traditionally the day the cheese is hauled out of the pit, but the DOP today allows for infossatura (when the cheese descends into the pit) between March 1 and September 21, which means the cheese can come out much sooner or later than St. Catherine’s Day. I am sure cheese snobs will be able to tell November 25 cheese from cheese pulled out on any other day, but I was quite happy with my chunk. The ripening in the pit gives the cheese a light caramel color and the texture is a bit greasy – not all that appealing, to be honest – but the flavor is very distinct. it is a bit musty, really fills the mouth and there is quite a bit of sharpness. We use it mainly as a grating cheese, and you need just a bit to give your pasta dish a lot of extra flavor, it really packs a punch.

Fontana del Calamo
Fontana del Calamo, 16th century masterpiece

The city of Ancona doesn’t reveal its charms easily, by the way, even if it does have some interesting squares and streets. It is home to Antonio Budano’s Re Formaggio, a place of pilgrimage for cheese lovers, but I arrived there during the looooong afternoon break and I was unable to hang around until the King of Cheese came back from his nap. I found a small friendly store that sold cheese, salami, prosciutto and delicious homemade pies next to the covered market so I was able to score.

Sauro Zannotti
Small friendly cheese store

The cheese was sold to me by Sauro Zannotti, the proprietor of said small friendly store, along with a piece of aged Pecorino and a very young Pecorino, so that I could compare and appreciate the special qualities of the pit cheese. Ah, and of course there was pie. I cannot be entirely certain, but Sauro seemed so proud of the homemade pie that he left me convinced it was his very own wife who baked it. And even if my plastic-wrapped Pecorino di Fossa did not look as cool as the cloth-wrapped chunks that come out of the pits, it has made many a pasta dish in our household bring back pleasant memories of yet another successful cheese hunt.

Renaissance Arch
Renaissance Archway in Ancona

 

 

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Venice (Week 13)

Venice I
Gondolas everywhere

Of course there are too many people in Venice. On the Ponte Rialto, visitors from India cross selfie sticks with the Chinese as if they are swords and pickpockets must have lobbyists working city hall to get a spot in the area because it just seems such a safe bet that in that line of work you can earn a very healthy living here. But even in season, it only takes a few turns and you are in a neighborhood of quiet streets and alleys, lined with pastel-colored houses hundreds of years old, an occasional view of a narrow canal opening up as you venture further into the medieval maze. Venice is always, always, worth your time. This week’s visit was very short, I knew the cruise ship I was on would leave with or without me.

Santa Maria Formosa
Santa Maria Formosa

I practically ran from the Piazza di Roma to my first destination: a cheese shop I had found online right across a canal from the Santa Maria Formosa, a church with a  split personality: it has a well-proportioned baroque facade on the north side, but on the side facing the canal and the cheese shop, it looks like a Renaissance church. There is a generation between the two facades. The tower is the best part of the complex: it has some very robust, simple patterns that segment the structure and give it a certain visual rhythm. They did towers quite well in Venice, centuries ago.

Prosciutto e Parmigiano’s website is in two languages and raises the specter of a slick experience, but I was pleasantly surprised: the owner spoke some English, but body parts other than our mouths had to be deployed frequently to ensure that I got what I thought I wanted: some buffalo mozzarella di campagna (try it and you’ll immediately understand why these globs of cheese candy usually are finished off in a single seating); a piece of straw-coated Tuscan Pecorino, and a thick slice of Asiago, the sharpest Provolone Stagionato I have ever tasted, and a piece of Vezzena di Lavarone.

Casa del Parmigiano Venice
Giuliano Aliani at work in his store

With my singular mission (get the cheese) accomplished, I began my quest back to the Piazza di Roma across the Rialto Bridge through the maze of water and stone. And that’s when Venice kept its promise: in the Campo Cesare Battisti già della Bella Vienna (really, you still ask what is in a name?) I stumbled across the Casa del Parmigiano, Giuliano Aliani’s cheese shop, and – but of course – I got even more cheese. A piece of bright yellow Piacentinu Ennese, given its unusual color by adding some saffron to the cheese (it also has peppercorns); the Pannerone Lodigiano that became the cheese of the week, and the Montasio Friulano.

Scuola Grande
Venice – a surprise in every street. The Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista

And a little closer to my destination I came past the beautiful courtyard of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, the building of a religious organization which used to house a piece of the true cross of Jesus. Of course, so many of those pieces existed that the cross poor Jesus carried up Golgotha hill must have been absolutely humongous. The initial inhabitants were so-called flagellants, people that would viciously whip their own backs in a gesture of penance during certain celebrations. Right after this place was founded the city, wisely, outlawed this gruesome practice: who wants blood spraying through the streets? The courtyard has a beautiful Renaissance gateway, dreamed up by architect Pietro Lombardo near the end of the 15th century. After some time looking around I returned to the ship, picking up some rolls and pan pistacchio on the way. With more than half a dozen cheeses in my bag, I was destined for a cheese-arama…

Pan Pistacchio
Venetian Pastries