Text By Emily Freisher
With tufts of graying hair and skin worn and reddened by the sun, Biagia Catena and his wife Elsa Pacchitta look like the well-weathered characters in a Steinbeck novel. The Italian farmers, however, are not living desperate lives.
Catena and Pacchitta wear the signs of their daily work - an extensive list of chores that both begin and end with handmade production of the farm's specialty, pecorino cheese. The famed regional cheese, made of sheep's milk, has been a staple of the Catena farm for three generations. And as the number of hand producers in the area sinks, the Catenas stand out for their commitment to the traditional reproduction of an icon of Italian cuisine.
The 80-acre family farm has perched atop a hill just outside of Cagli for nearly 200 years. Catena's ancestors purchased the property from their landlord during feudal times and expanded their livestock to raise chickens, lambs, cows, deer, and sheep.
Catena spends his days tending to the livestock, which provide the largest source of income. The process of producing pecorino cheese from sheep's milk is one of the most tedious farming techniques and is left solely to Pachitta, 70.
"They make fun of the way I dress, but they take pictures of me anyway," laughs Pachitta, as she finishes milking the sheep. Her brown, muddied boots are a stark contrast to the bright green floral dress matched in intensity by her smile.
Twice a day, in the early morning and again in the afternoon, Pachitta makes her rounds and milks the fifteen sheep on the farm. She hauls a large bucket of warm milk back to the house and adds exactly eight drops of "caglio"("rennet" in English), a yeast-like liquid, to every 10 liters. In about an hour, the cheese has fermented, and Pachitta makes a cross with her index finger on the curdled cheese to bless it - in deference to her Catholic heritage.
From there she begins the tedious process of massaging the liquid whey apart from the solid curds and placing them into a 6-inch cheese form. As she molds the cheese, thrusting the weight of her body downward into the small ceramic dish, Pacchitta watches her grandson, Adriano, stand mesmerized with his face only a few inches above the bowl.
The small stool she is balanced on puts them nearly at eye-level, and she smiles at him, occasionally glancing down as the whey gushes over the sides of the dish and into the plastic bowl that surrounds it. About half an hour later, the cheese fits snugly into the form and is placed in the back room. In less than a month a solid round of pecorino will be ready for purchase. The daily routine is time-consuming, and only about 60 one-kilogram rounds are made a month.
Pacchitta explains she makes the cheese only four months of the year, from April to July. The rest of her time is spent tending her pregnant sheep, whose offspring are sold in the spring before the cycle of cheese production continues.
"The freshest cheeses are made in May, because the sheep have the greenest grass to chew on," Pacchitta says.
Hand-making cheese is a dying practice due to technological advances, but Pacchitta remains steadfast. She says proudly they are the last Cagliese farmers producing the cheese, explaining most other producers have moved here from Sardinia, and use their machinery and 300-plus sheep to make large quantities of pecorino.
"It's actually easier to do it by hand when you don't have too many sheep," says Catena, referring to the 15 sheep stationed in the barn behind the house.
Catena and his wife sell their cheese simply by word of mouth to locals and out-of-towners who have heard of its authenticity. The fresh pecorino isn't available to anyone in stores and must be purchased at the farm - a 10-minute drive from Cagli, a world away from America. Each cheese round is a €12 (about $18) purchase that supports the Catena's small-scale production and family business.
The family uses the pecorino daily, most often with pasta. "Pecorino is a good topping for most pasta, but it is best on tagliatelli," says Pacchitta.
Though they live alone, the Catenas are often joined by their daughter, Daniella, 42, and son, Alfio, 50, both of whom live close by. These traditional gatherings, often centered on meals, are a reminder of food's place in Italian culture.
Pecorino is used regularly along with many types of meat and fruits found throughout the farm. In fact, the family's only purchases are bread and pasta at the local co-op. The rest comes from the steady source of the Catenas' daily routine - fresh meats, eggs, and fruits collected throughout the farm.
Pacchitta has gone through three different aprons throughout her day of cheese-making. The back room has the pungent smell of fresh cheese, and salami hangs in nets from the ceiling. Catena sits outside, conversing avidly with his daughter and her son, Adriano, not yet two.
"Bene, Adriano, bene," laughs Catena, smiling down at his grandson who slides his finger around the pocket of his cheek. Distracted, Adriano reaches down to search for the farm kittens while Pacchitta, Catena, and his mother watch, making no effort to coax him back to his feet.
The farm is closing for the evening, but the Catenas bear no signs of a hard day's work. Yet at the next dawn's break it is expected, even guaranteed, that the process will begin again, completing the cycle of family, business; business, family.