A cheese that reflects its impressive history.
Pienza is one of Tuscany’s most enchanting towns. Its only 2,000 inhabitants have the privilege of living in an ancient environment full of history that was admitted to the prestigious UNESCO list of world inheritance places in 1996.
But the wonder doesn’t stop here, because Pienza is also home to one of Italy’s most beloved cheeses.
In certain parts of this country, local food products deep-rooted in tradition enhance the image of cities. This is exactly the case in the central part of Tuscany, Val d’Orcia, which is well-known for its stunning natural scenery. Here, the sweetness of the hilltops and the multiple long rows of marching cypress trees give Tuscany a touch of softness, as though nature had decided not to offend anyone’s eyes. You are able to drive around for hours while indulging in one dazzling view after another.
This is, however, also an area famous for its abundance of flavors that can be found in local recipes, wines and the many varieties of cheeses. Smells and tastes abound in the area’s cozy towns, which here are called città d’arte, literally meaning ‘art cities’. Amongst these are Siena, Pienza, Montalcino, Montepulciano and Bagno Vignoni.
Abundance is, without a doubt, the appropriate key word when you speak about the flavors of this area, including the two famous wine towns—Montepulciano and Montalcino. The first is famous for its red wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and the latter has gained world fame due to the “King of wines”, the Brunello di Montalcino.
But, as we all know, a good wine becomes even better if it has the intriguing company of an outstanding cheese. That’s exactly why Pienza should have an important position on your Tuscany bucket list. A place that cannot be missed because of history, architecture and a cheese that many claim to be one of the best in Italy.
When traveling from Montalcino towards Pienza, at a certain point along the motorway you’re likely to find a row of cars that have pulled over and parked on one side of the road. Many of the people leaving their cars have a camera around their neck. They are all heading towards the same spot from where you’ll find the best view to one of Italy’s most iconic natural spots—a green valley with a small group of cypress trees that seem to resemble the classical Tuscan dream of natural beauty.
This iconic view of nature and beauty is actually a sort of metaphor of what awaits you after just another quarter of an hour away, when you arrive at Pienza. Here, though, the beauty is also the taste of local pride, which, without doubt, is able to bring a smile to the lips of cheese lovers.
Pecorino di Pienza is a sheep cheese that has historic origins, just like many of Tuscany’s wines. Allegedly, it’s one of the oldest types of cheese in the world. The ancient Romans and, before them, the Etruscans, produced and consumed Pecorino. And, according to Italy’s gastronomic historic books, the Florentine nobleman Lorenzo de’ Medici was so fond of Pecorino that he actually went all the way from Florence to Pienza just to get his hands on the tasty cheese.
Over time, many tales and histories have been told about this cheese that has evolved over centuries. In modern times, this is also the story about how Sardinia and Tuscany are bound together through Pecorino.
Some 50-60 years ago, Val d’Orcia was not the fashionable, sought after area it is today. Most of all, it was a rural district where no one wanted to live, especially the young people who often preferred to move to nearby towns. At the same time, many Sardinian farmers decided to leave their farms and businesses. For that reason, the Italian government started offering the Sardinians an opportunity to buy huge areas of land in Tuscany at favorable prices. Many of them accepted this offer after which they moved to Tuscany, bringing hundreds and hundreds of sheep with them.
From Sardinia with Love
To be able to fully understand the history and quality of Pecorino di Pienza, I decided to visit the Fattoria Buca Nuova in the outskirts of Pienza. The company was founded in 1966, when Pietrino Cugusi and his wife, Mulas Maria Antonia, moved from Sardinia to Tuscany. Today, Pietrino’s son Emilio Cugusi is one of the heads of the company. He greets me as I arrive, and together we start our walk through the production unit.
“Since the middle of the 20th century, the production of Pecorino was carried out by the local farmers of this district who only had small breedings of sheep,” says Cugusi. “The sheep pastured in areas that otherwise would have been totally ignored. But, very slowly, these breedings started to be more substantial. The production became more and more important, and the markets—both the Italian and later on also some foreign markets—started to ask for higher volumes of a product that was characterized by a high quality.”
Today, the Sardinia imprint is still very present in the production of Pecorino. Sardinian sheep, which are a different breed compared to the Tuscan variety, are still used for the production of a cheese with very particular characteristics.
“The cheese is not spicy, although it’s full of character. I’d say that it has a decisive and rounded taste,” says Cugusi.
As we move further in the production unit, Cugusi stops and shows me some Pecorinos in the middle of a seasoning process.
“This orange Pecorino is being stored for 45 days. You obtain this color because of the external treatment that is used, i.e. the cheese is rubbed with a mix of tomatoes and olive oil,” he says. “This coating will naturally protect the cheese.”
Other types of Pecorinos are wrapped in a totally black coating or placed on a bed of leaves, which you are also able to see in Pienza’s numerous cheese shops. And one can also find Pecorino with a coating made on pomace from wine, which, of course, adds a very pleasant scent to the final product.
“As you can see, we have many different products and also sizes. Pecorino’s classical form weighs 1.5 kg, but we actually have cheese forms that weigh up to 6 kg. Although the standard seasoning is one and a half months, our Pecorino Gran Riserva, which is our top product, usually has a seasoning between 18 and 24 months,” Cugusi says.
In some Pecorinos sold in Pienza, you’ll even be able to see mold on the outside of the cheese. But there is actually no need to worry about that.
“The mold is actually a positive sign,” says Cugusi. “It occurs due to the fact that the cheese is not treated with chemical products in any way, and the seasoning is completely natural. The mold can easily be washed away.”
Pecorino is truly a unique cheese also when it comes to the quantity of the overall production, which is actually quite modest compared to a cheese produced commercially. While many of Italy’s other famous cheeses are protected by the EU-qualification DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), this is not the case with Pecorino of Pienza. Because it is not a protected brand, there is actually a risk of coming across fake products.
Around Pienza, only some 20 companies are producing the cheese made from the milk of just 3,000 sheep. As a matter of fact, if all the cheese sold under the brand Pecorino di Pienza were really the original, you would actually need 100,000 sheep.
Contributing to the problem are the sheep imported from France, which some local farmers have been using for milk in recent years. Instead of only 1 liter—the daily amount of milk coming from the traditional Sardinian sheep—the French sheep are able to produce 3 liters a day, which, of course, gives access to a larger production. However, the flavor of the final product is not like the original.
In the center of this Tuscan city, you’ll find the long Corso Rossellini, which cuts the town in two. The center of Pienza was designed in the Middle Ages by architect Bernardo Rossellino, who also worked for Pope Pio II, and it is dominated by the impressive Cathedral of Pienza, erected in 1462. From here, it is as though spirituality flows out to reach all corners of this small town, which is also known under its nickname “la città ideale”. This because Pienza was considered the Renaissance utopia incarnation of an ideal city, which, from an architectural point of view, is characterized by a rational organization of the open spaces and perspectives of squares and palaces.
Along the Corso, many small grocery and specialty stores can be found. And when you stop in front of them, you are automatically bound to be dragged inside by the inviting Pecorinos. Samples are on display to taste, and you’ll be able to try many before making your choice.
And, to complete the picture of Pienza, if you happen to visit the town on the first Sunday of September, do not miss the annual precision game ”il Gioco del Cacio al fuso”, where the participants try to role Pecorino cheese as close as possible to a pole. It takes place right in the center of town on Piazza Pio II and is an important folkloristic event of Pienza. On that day, a touch of fun and madness mixed with history and taste, will give you the perfect dimension of what Pienza is all about.