Some cheeses have a history worth celebrating centuries later. One is Formaggio di Fossa di Sogliano, which is renowned and celebrated at the annual Pit Cheese Festival in Sogliano al Rubicone in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. Held on the last two Sundays in November and the first Sunday of December, the festival includes a market selling this cheese, and the ripening pits are open to the public.
Translated to mean ‘cheese of the pit’, Fossa cheese, as it is sometimes referred to, is produced using techniques dating back to the 15th century. Back then, the caves in Sogliano were regularly used to conserve grain. Yet, they were also rented out for aging cheese, according to two separate documents written in 1498 and 1498. Fossa cheese gets its name from the ripening process, which involves special underground pits, or fossas, that are dug in soft tufa rock.
Fossa cheese is made with either sheep or cow’s milk or a combination of both. It typically matures around 30 days before being placed in a 16-foot-deep pit, which is prepared by burning straw inside to remove moisture and sterilize the space. This provides an ideal aging environment of 70 degrees F and 90 percent humidity. The cheese is then wrapped in cloth bags before being placed in the pit, which is then closed off entirely while the cheese matures for an additional 80 to 100 days. The sealing of the pit limits the oxygen available to the cheese, enabling a process of anaerobic fermentation. After it’s removed from the pit, the cheese is allowed to ripen for an additional three months.
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Once maturation is over, the bags of cheese are taken out in a formal ‘sfossatura’ on November 25th, the day dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who was the saint alleged to have suffered martyrdom in Alexandria of Egypt early in the fourth century. It was always a feast day cherished by the population of Sogliano. The date also coincides with the end of both the harvest and sowing period when country folk would prepare for the winter suspension of their work.
This is a well-publicized event where the cured cheeses are brought out in abundance and served either raw or on a variety of local dishes that include mainly polenta, pasta and tripe. Complimentary wines are served and music celebrates the cheese’s unearthing.
Over time, Fossa cheese production has been improved. Today’s aging pits are more likely to be made out of sandstone, which are clean and lined with a suitable material for aging.
In pits, this cheese takes on the aroma of wood, truffles and moss from the environment in which it is placed. The flavor can range from sweet to sharp, to a little bitter, depending on how much milk is used and on the pits themselves.
Along with it’s unique flavor, Formaggio di fossa di Sogliano DOP has specific features. It is a sheep, cow or mixed cheese. The rind is absent or very thin, soft, ivory-colored, often with some mold spots. The surface is greasy and humid, while the interior is soft and ivory-colored, with light straw-yellow shades.
A friable texture allows it to be easily cut in flakes on pasta or vegetables. Formaggio di fossa di Sogliano in flakes is perfect with meat, especially escalope or roast. It also can be cut in slices, and covered with fruit jams or honey.
In 2009, Formaggio di Fossa was granted Denominazione di Origine Protetta status, the Italian equivalent of Protected Designation of Origin. Further proof that it’s not just fine wine that gets better with age!