Say “Cheese!” in Vallo di NeraEven Italians photographing their friends urge them to say “Cheese”! (After all, with the word “cheese”, your mouth widens to a smile; saying “formaggio” forms a downward curve like a frown).
One June Sunday in the Nera Valley, “formaggio” was on the lips of everyone (literally, figuratively): “Formaggio di pecora qui!” “Prova il nostro formaggio con tartufo, Signora?” “Che buono, questo formaggio!” “Signore, assaggi questa bruschetta al formaggio!”…
The cheese festival, Fior di Cacio – dedicated to the best in Umbria mountain area cheeses – had taken over the tiny mountain village of Vallo di Nera.
Visitors meandered the fiabesco (“as in a fairy tale” ) twisting medieval lanes, pausing at cheese stands lining the alleyways to nibble every type of Umbrian cheese imaginable: caciotta (with cow’s milk), caciotta mista (with sheep’s milk, too), caprino (goat cheese) and countless pecorino varieties of the Val Nerina (once an area shepherds).
I had never imagined so many varieties of cheeses – and they just kept coming. And not only: booths offering wild boar salami, Norcia prosciutto, local capocollo flanked the cheese stands.Appropriately, pastoral mountain music – le pastorelle – added a musical note to the festivities: women joined together in traditional rural tunes, accompanied by an accordion, tambourine.
Nearby, I spotted elderly shepherd Settimio in a medieval wine cellar, offering tastes of his cheese, aged in hay. I asked him why – after all these years – he was still shepherding and still making cheeses: “Fare il pastore e’ bellissimo!”
Across the lane, volunteers at the grill offered toasted breads topped with melted cheeses to visitors. Munching on the bruschette al formaggio, we headed toward a stand offering tastes of organic wines. Young Alfredo and Giulio poured us cups of wine produced by Giulio’s Papa’ – a perfect pairing with the sharp pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheeses starring at this Fior del Cacio festival.Before leaving, we stopped at the booth of appassionato young cheese-maker Eros. His name denotes “love” and this young man is passionately in love with cheese-making and cheese history, carrying on the passione of generations.
His pecorini aged in hay, in wheat grains, in walnut leaves, in grape skins, in limestone caves all enticed – as did his stories about his ancestors attempts to keep their foods out of the hands of German soldiers in World War II.
“They hid cheeses in the granaries, in the haystacks, in their wine cellar barrels of mosto and in mountain caves.” Ah, that Italian creativity: used to fend off starvation, it inadvertently also enhanced the flavor of the cheeses.
Read more about Settimio and his Vallo di Nera
Read about another Val Nerina gem
Read about Scheggino on the Nera River
Read about a sagra near Perugia starring peperoncino