Let me preface this by saying that my body does not handle large amounts of dairy well. The week before I left for Italy, I had the best mozzarella sticks–from Buffalo Wild Wings–and I ended up feeling sick and throwing up that night. Needless to say, I was hesitant about going to cheese factory, as curious as I was about the entire process for my cheese loving sister.
The cheese factory was not at all like I imagined. Most of the cheese that they make is produced in the morning, and nothing really operates later in the day. The factory is actually a collective organization of local farmers that all make cheese together. This association was created in the 1960’s in an area where historically, farmers of olden times moved sheep and cows to regulate the temperature in which these livestock lived. The factory produces around 1.5 million kilograms of cheese per year–this is more than 3 million pounds of cheese per year. We were told that they produce around 4,000 kilograms of cheese a day. The process to make cheese is almost not unlike making wine–with many alterations of course. After milk is collected from a certain type of animal (sheep, cow, goat, water buffalo, etc), this milk is then pasteurized to kill any unwanted bacteria up to 70 degrees celsius for around 5 minutes. The milk is then moved to large metal vats, where it will be cultured–similar to fermentation in the winemaking process. This will affect the k-casein in milk to cause coagulation. Then the semisolid liquid is moved to large pooled tables. In these tables, the curds are collected in plastic bowls (in the shape of cheese wheels) and the whey is then recooked to create fluffy, light ricotta cheese. Once the curds are collected and compacted, they are moved into the “hot room”. In this room hot temperatures turn the curds into the solid wheels we are familiar with. Afterwards, these wheels are moved into cellars, where they will be kept to age various durations. This was the craziest part of our visit. We walked into a cellar will probably hundreds of wheels of cheese just sitting on the shelves. Many seconds of them were also covered in mold. We were told that the mold was a good sign, and it is cleaned off every week! A pecorino cheese is made from sheep milk and is typical in the Tuscany region of Italy. Pecorino cheese are named for how aged they are. We tried 3 different types of pecorino. The first was a fresco, or fresh/young cheese. It was very, very light in color and tasted extremely fresh. It is similar to a lighter cheese in the United States, but with an unparalleled fresh taste. It was soft and easy to bite into. The second cheese was a semi stagionato, meaning semi seasoned or medium age. This one was browner in color, and was saltier and more bitter than the first cheese. It was much more pungent as well. The last one was another stagionato, but this one was slightly older and was seasoned with black pepper. It had an even stronger smell, and was darker with visible black pepper pieces. The last two cheese were harder and broke in half more easily than the first. None of the cheeses had holes in them.
The cheeses were so amazing, and I have not yet gotten sick in Italy from eating too many dairy products in a day. After our tasting, I bought some of the cheapest high quality cheese I will probably ever buy in my life. They were vacuumed packed for me to bring back home to the States! I am looking forward to bringing a piece of Italy to set in motion my sister’s path to becoming a cheese connoisseur.