When this area was under the rule of the Papal States in the Middle Ages, canny villagers devised one of the earliest tax avoidance schemes known to man by burying their precious ewe’s milk cheeses so the Pope’s tax inspectors wouldn’t count them in the annual produce tally. When the villagers dug the cheeses up again they found they had matured into something delicious.
The tradition goes on to this day.
Pits have been dug into the tufa, a porous limestone that underlies the villages. In August the pits are fired with burning straw to kill any bugs then floored with wood and walled with a layer of straw. Villagers pass in their cheeses wrapped in white cotton and, when the pit is full, a thick layer of sand is put on top and sealed with a skin of cement. In the past great lengths were taken to disguise the top so only the villagers knew where it could be found.
While the cheeses are in the pit a lot of the water and salt is squeezed out of them and absorbed by the tufa. A secondary fermentation takes place at 30 to 400C. When the seal is broken between three and nine months later, the smell could fell a full grown man.
They say that ‘tomb-robbing’ for cheese has never caught on for that very reason. Men with masks empty the pit and each cheese is returned to the villager who put it in. The end result is a truly memorable strong cheese, best eaten in small amounts with a drizzle of honey and balsamic vinegar and accompanied by a good Italian red wine.
Thanks to Patrick, every Rotarian was able to have a taste and the universal response was “Magnifico!”