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Sardinia, Italy
Come along for a look at a fabled island's thousand-year love affair with pecorino cheese
 
RECIPES:
In the dusky post-dawn on their farm outside the tiny village of Orgosolo, Marco Filindeu and his brother Antonio milk their sheep. They do it by hand, rhythmically extracting the rich and creamy milk that they will later transform into several kinds of Sardinia's renowned pecorino (sheep's-milk cheeses), including one so beloved on the island that it is called fiore Sardo (flower of Sardinia).

The Filindeus, like half of Sardinia's 100,000 shepherds, live in La Barbagia, the isolated central region of Sardinia where pine-covered hills explode into granite peaks, and the sky can be crystalline blue one minute, icy gray the next. Endless herds of sheep clot into sheltered corners, drip down rough grassy slopes, or cluster around baobab-like cork oak trees. It's an ancient landscape, and one that still seems largely untouched by the modern world — or its inventions.

I've come to the Filindeus' remote farm to see how — using techniques and tools that have remained unchanged for a thousand years — they make the round, heavy fiore Sardo. Just like his forebears, Marco strains the milk through linen, makes the sign of the cross over the curd with a long, wooden knife before he breaks it apart, and uses Sardinian sea salt in a brine that salts the cheeses. The gas flame that heats the milk is the most recent innovation, and it was introduced a mere eight years ago. Until then, oak logs provided the fuel.

Once the curd is separated and molded, Marco reheats the whey to make ricotta. "Cheese is the basis of our diet," he says quietly as he slowly stirs the whey. "That and meat. We don't eat vegetables. Not unless the doctor tells us we have to!"

A white layer of what looks like cream rises to the surface, and Marco turns off the gas. Using a ladle, he gingerly scoops the ricotta into a mold, as cautiously as if it were his first time. It's not. Marco, 28, has been the family cheesemaker for ten years — he's simply a perfectionist. His mother expects perfect ricotta to make her cakes, fried ravioli, pasta sauces, and saffron-laced tarts, and Marco delivers.

I taste the warm, creamy ricotta. It is like eating a milky cloud. Marco laughs at my appreciation. "I don't like it," he says, then points to the cheeses he's already made that week, all of which have been soaked in a salt brine. "Antonio and I will put one near the fire tonight," he says. "As it melts we'll scrape it onto bread and potatoes. If we liked vegetables, we might eat it with fresh fava beans."

The rest of the cheeses will be smoked for a few weeks in one of the small stone huts that dot the terrain. The smoke is intended to protect the cheeses from insects; that it adds a layer of flavor is a fortuitous side effect. Aged for up to ten months in the mountains of La Barbagia, each cheese will be rubbed with a mixture of olive oil and lamb fat, which darkens the outside and protects the interior.Fiore Sardo, which ages to a near-spicy sharpness, is just one of dozens of sheep's-milk cheeses that make up Sardinia's economic, culinary and — one has the impression — emotional backbone. It benefits from a Denominazione di Origine Proteta (DOP), a pedigree guaranteeing provenance and quality, and is the only Sardinian cheese with this distinction made artisanally with raw milk. While fiore Sardo is the most traditional of Sardinian cheeses, pecorino Romano is certainly the best known — virtually all of it is exported to mainland Italy, then to the United States, where it is known as Romano cheese. Pecorino Sardo is divided into two categories — mature and mild — and includes a multitude of different shapes and sizes.

But all sheep's-milk cheeses hold a special place in the hearts and palates of the Sardinian people. "Every day here begins and ends with pecorino," says Efisio Farris, a native of Orosei on the northeast coast of the island. Although he now lives in Texas, where he is chef and owner of two Sardinian restaurants (in Dallas and Houston), Farris was home on one of his frequent visits.

"I remember my grandmother and her mother always had a nugget of pecorino in their skirt pocket in case someone was hungry," he says. "Here in Sardinia, we say that cheese makes you strong."

Salvatore Sedda, one of the largest producers of pecorino cheese on the island, agrees. "Pecorino is our food," he says. "Even when we are ill. If I have a stomachache, I eat a piece of aged pecorino and I'm better. We eat it at the end of the meal because it helps the digestion, it makes you feel light, it helps you sleep."

Sedda goes a step further, as he demonstrated one Sunday after the midday meal. He rose from the table, grabbed a piece of pane carasau, the traditional flatbread of Sardinia, rinsed it quickly under water to soften it and went to a large glass jar on a side table. He opened the jar, scooped out a mound of what looked like thick cream, and folded the bread around it. He returned to the table and ate silently, reverently, his eyes half closed. When he was finished I asked what he had eaten, and he got up to show me. Inside the jar was pecorino, busy with small, white worms. I'd heard about this cheese, but this was the first time I'd gotten so close.

"Exceptional" was all Sedda would allow. I believed him.

A friend of his, known simply as Gristolu, said, "It's formaggio marcio [literally, "rotten cheese"], cheese with worms. It's a delicacy. It's the most beautiful gift you can give a Sardinian shepherd."

In Sardinia, there is always a chunk of pecorino close by. Giuseppe Marchi, a shepherd who makes fiore Sardo on a remote farm in the mountains of La Barbagia, is showing off his newly modernized dairy, the one he built in compliance with stringent new European Union standards. He shakes his head as we walk through the pristine, tiled rooms, each reserved for a separate stage of cheesemaking.

"All this just means a lot of expense for us," says Marchi. "The cheese will always be the same." He opens up a newspaper-wrapped package to reveal an ancient-looking pecorino, its crust a dark brown, its interior as gold as straw.

"It's twenty-three months old," he says with the shy pride typical of the Sardinian shepherd. He takes a lesoria, the traditional Sardinian shepherd's knife, from his pocket and pries off several chunks of cheese. Then he takes down a stack of fresh, crisp pane carasau.

"This," he says, handing me a piece of his cheese with bread, "is the true pecorino of Sardinia. Eat it. It will make you strong, and it will make you sing."

— Adapted from an article by Susan Herrmann Loomis; produced by Mara Papatheodorou; recipes by Joanne Weir, Bon Appétit, May 2002 

FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRIAN LEATART


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