Duplex Amor Me Effundit (Great Love Fills Me)
At Il Forteto in Tuscany, cheesemaking begins with a culture of solidarity
This story isn’t all about cheese. That may sound odd considering it takes you inside Cooperativa Agricola Il Forteto, a lauded producer of traditional Italian cheeses. Recognized the world over for its products, Il Forteto pecorinos have won first place of all DOP (designation of production) cheese at the Tuttofood International exhibition in Milan and a gold medal at the 2009 World Cheese Awards in Gran Canaria.
Cheese this good practically speaks for itself.
This is the story of cheesemakers at the Cooperativa Agricola Il Forteto, and their unyielding effort to create a sustainable ideal long before sustainable became...well, “sustainable.” And how they discovered that the secret to cheese success is more than the physical interactive cycling of resources on a farm; it also resides in the mental and emotional well-being of the farmers and workers themselves. They value careful handling by and for every individual, granting each an opportunity for solitude interspersed with constant positive interaction. They believe that this allows individuals a chance at their own personal triumph. There couldn’t be a more perfect metaphor for cheesemaking.
Nil Difficile Volenti
(Nothing Is Impossible)
Il Forteto sits in the hills of Tuscany, near the town of Vicchio, squarely in the ancient seat of the Medici family. The breathtaking countryside has long been agricultural, with rich cheesemaking practices springing from the landscape and centuries of politics. History haunts the towns, and ancient garden preferences still dominate with fields of brilliant black-eyed red poppies and sentinel cypress trees. Orchards and pastures keep the landscape open and green. “I am a farmer, really. That is when I am happiest...in the fields,” says Stephano Sarti, Forteto’s communicator. His ever-ready smile matches his boyish enthusiasm as he looks across a landscape of plush hills.
One can imagine Roman patricians building retreats here and living luxuriously in the gentle climate, savoring an abundance of Mediterranean fruits and vegetables grown in the hot sun and cool nights. It’s easy to see why the Medici family, one of the greatest patrons of the arts, sprang from this land of natural inspiration. It’s not surprising that waves of invaders thundered across these fields in search of plunder and domination of the known world in their assault on that fabled end of all roads. This is land that’s been cultivated for thousands of years, with farms passed through countless generations: a land to dream in, to protect, and to inspire great things.
So it was in 1977, when Il Forteto’s founders came to these Tuscan hills with a collective dream. Thirteen friends—among them, teachers, students, and workers—left the University of Florence with their heads full of the philosophy of Don Lorenzo Milani, Lorenzo Balducci, and David Cooper, among others. The widespread economic and social turbulence of that time formed their hopes and drove this band of idealistic friends into the hills to make a better society built on communal intent, total equality, and hard work. They formed a partnership, co-owned the land, and committed themselves to a vision of spiritual and physical sustenance.
Volat et Rudit
(Will and Knowledge)
On five hectares the founding partners grew food, raised 40 sheep, and, under the guidance of Sauro Sarti, Stephano’s cousin and one of the original friends who still makes the aged cheeses at Il Forteto today, the cooperative began producing a limited quantity of cheeses according to the traditions of the area. These included pecorino, fresh and aged; caciotta Toscana ricotta (made of mixed cow’s and sheep’s milk); and the lactic set raveggiolo.
In the wrong hands, pecorino is a waxy, salty, unremarkable cheese. Conversely, Il Forteto’s artisan sheep’s milk pecorino is complex, with a tangy sweetness and flavors of the local pastures, subtle but aromatic. Demand has grown monumentally over the years, and with the building of a much larger plant in 1992, Il Forteto turned to 130 Sarda and Massese sheep breeders, members of their farming cooperative, to provide the nearly 8 million liters of milk they turn into cheese each year. The milk is valued based on composition and quality, which ensures that superior farming practices, rather than sheer quantity, are rewarded. The cooperative has also set up agricultural classes for farmers at the university, in hopes that family dairies will continue to be passed to the next generation.
Beyond bringing monetary success coupled with preservation of historical tradition to this storied valley, 11 of the original founders plus 26 new friends still live and breathe the philosophy that established their cooperative. On a refurbished farm once belonging to a younger Medici son, Il Forteto now encompasses 850 hectares.
On an early spring day at the farm, Il Forteto’s all-white Chianina cattle graze in pastures, producing the lean, mineral-tasting beef sold in the cooperative’s store. Maremma horses toss their manes and munch on green grass. At the stone and stucco main house, dark wood shutters are open and a geranium-scented breeze catches the edge of a brightly striped rug hanging over the second-floor balcony railing.
The enclave includes land far into the distance where members live with their families, but the main house is the heart of Il Forteto. At lunch, the entire clan and its families, now adding up to more than a hundred people, sit together at long trestle tables covered with checkered tablecloths, bottles of water and wine, and baskets of two-foot-long Tuscan flat bread.
Included in the group is Simone, whose story of how he ended up at Il Forteto is an example of the greater good on which the founders have built this enterprise. The 22-year-old Simone was born in Livorno, Italy, with Martin-Bell syndrome (aka Fragile X syndrome), which, apart from physical difficulties, often manifests as hyperactivity and avoidance of social interactions. His mother abandoned him in a park one winter day, and soon he entered the labyrinth system of child services, in which kids like Simone were essentially doomed to grinding tragedy and poverty.
Instead of leaving him to that life, Il Forteto’s members brought him home. Today he is Stephano’s son: self-sufficient, attending school, and working in cheesemaking. To this day, there is an ongoing relationship between Il Forteto and the social-service network; nearly 100 at-risk children have come to the cooperative to live.
The paths that others have taken to Il Forteto are many and varied. More than 15 years ago, for example, a classically trained violinist from the Florence Conservatory came for a visit. He never left. Today he can sometimes be found taking a break from tending the cooperative’s flowers, playing Mozart in the rebuilt chapel on the hill. The one-of-a-kind cheesemaking community also includes other musicians as well as artists, farmers, discarded children, intact families, single aesthetes, and just plain hardworking helpers. Inside the lofty living room in the main house, Il Forteto’s dark and deep-eyed president and manager, Stefano Pezzati, lights a cigarette and quietly watches them all, measuring reactions. His ideological resolve is palpable. Perhaps that is why Rodolfo Fiesoli, “The Teacher,” beams with quiet joy as he also surveys the room. Seeing these two men presiding, you can begin to imagine how all this evolved, starting with nothing more than the will to succeed. Il Forteto’s reputation may be for producing great cheese, but its legacy is about sustaining a remarkable culture.
Cheese factories can be sterile and stern, but Il Forteto’s creamery is full of cheerful movement. Local women stand in a circle, chatting and hand-braiding mozzarella as it emerges from a machine in a rope, or ladling ricotta into tubs and filling fist-size burrata. Cheeses heading for the aging caves pass by on wheeled racks; yogurt bottles clink along a filling line. These appear to be happy workers—and dedicated, whether they are managers or local workers. Which is perhaps not so surprising considering everyone here earns the same salary. (“Why is someone’s work more valuable than someone else’s?” muses co-founder Stephano Sarti. “That would not be right.”)
In its early days, Il Forteto’s equitably produced cheese was made solely for local consumption. Today you can find its aged cheeses in shops around the world. (You’ll have to go to Tuscany to sample its fresh cheeses . . . not a bad prospect.) Here’s what to look for:
Antico Mugello, a three-month-old aged sheep’s milk pecorino, is rubbed with tomato concentrate, which protects the rind from unwanted molds. It’s a Tuscan classic.
Bigio is made by aging pecorino for five months, covered with chestnut wood ashes from Il Forteto’s bread ovens. Its veil of ash halts mold and sweetens the cheese.
Boschetto al Tartufo Bianchetto is a fresh mixed-milk cheese with slivered white truffle mixed throughout (no oils or other flavor extenders are used). The truffle flavor is earthy and dominant without smothering the cheese’s natural character.
Brillo Divino begins with a four-month-old cheese that is placed in clay pots and immersed for 20 days in red wine, then left to dry naturally. The result is a full-flavored sheep’s milk cheese with a heady, strong character.
Cacio di Fossa is a cheese that salutes a centuries-old practice of preserving food (and hiding it from marauders) in the ground. The cheese is buried in local lime-rich hollows (tufa) where the whey and fat dissipate, leaving the cheese sharply acidic and oddly shaped by time spent resting inside the earth.
Guccio, a small fresh-ripened sheep’s milk cheese developed by Marco Fiesoli, has a delicate bloom and a somewhat firm paste. It debuted in 2009 and took home a bronze at the World Cheese Awards.
Pecorino Toscano DOP, a mellow sheep’s milk cheese, is aged about 30 days. The high butterfat content of sheep’s milk makes this a rich cheese. Curds are cut small, gently placed in molds to drain, then brined to help rind formation and to reduce the moisture in the cheese. A traditional Tuscan pecorino, it is ivory white, dense, and pliable.
Sottoilnoce packs a double hit of Tuscan terroir; it starts with a four-month-old pecorino rubbed with homemade nocino (walnut liqueur) and is then wrapped and aged in local walnut leaves for another three months.
Stagionato DOP is pecorino aged four months, which allows the cheese to take on a more pronounced flavor as the paste yellows with age.
Oro Antico Riserva del Casaro is a specially selected pecorino, uniquely washed only once, then aged over six months while being rubbed with olive oil regularly to give the rind a hard finish but leaving the center pliable. This piquant pecorino is as different from its youngest sibling as night and day. As the top prizewinner in Aged DOP cheeses at the World Cheese Awards, Oro Antico is the signature cheese from Il Forteto.
Written by Stephanie Skinner
Photography by Giovanni Cipriano