Tell Me, O Muse: The Immortal Technique of Pecorino Marras
Each man delights in the work that suits him best.
-Homer, The Odyssey
Some legends have it that the fearsome Cyclops of Homer's Odyssey was in fact a humble cheesemaker that was just misunderstood by his neighbours. Indeed it is thought that the passage in which his craft is described is among the first mentions of cheese productions; perhaps the poor Cyclops got a raw deal on the whole telling of the tale and has been forgotten for his trade. But you know, it isn't such a leap: cheese is a powerful food and those who know how to tame that beast into the form we know are in some way a bit fearsome. As the author Clifton Fadiman once said, cheese is milk's leap toward immortality, and few people know this better than Francesco Marras.
One of seven children, Francesco came to Lazio from Lula, Sardinia in 1986 having already begun his career as a cheesemaker selling to markets in Puglia and Napoli. In many ways, his story is a mirror of the migration patterns that shaped contemporary Italy: while the mainland was experiencing large scale rural to urban migration in the wake of modernization, farmers from Sardinia were moving onto the unoccupied lands left behind and continuing their trades. Due to the similarities in topography and climate, the shepherding that defined Sardinia found a seemingly natural home in upper Lazio and lower Tuscany and thus the production of Pecorino continued apace.
This is where things begin to get a bit complicated. For in fact, Pecorino Sardo is a particular type of flavour profile within the family of cheeses and while it may be produced outside of Sardinia it will always be known as 'Pecorino Sardo'. Outside of Italy or the very strict cheese lovers among you, the differences between Pecorinos Sardo, Romano or Toscano might be quite negligable; within these circles however, they are crucial. Pecorino Romano is usually the more biting of the bunch, with a saltier and stronger flavour (this is why it's most often used in Cacio e Pepe and Carbonara). Pecorino Sardo, on the other hand, has a creamier texture and a richer, nuttier flavour. And yes, I know that the words "richer, nuttier flavour" are what people used when they don't actually know how to explain something, but in this case it really does apply. Importantly, the nomenclature is indicative of the method more than the point of production (though to be called a Pecorino DOP the cheese must come from within the DOP zone). For example, Francesco Marras lives in Tuscania but produces Pecorino Sardo; some of the best varieties of Pecorino Romano are instead produced in Sardinia.
Gosh this sure is starting to feel like school, isn't it? Well that's probably because IT IS! Marras is a man who takes his cheese seriously, so much so that his work is often included in the course materials of universities and culinary schools. We were allowed to observe one of the tutorials that Francesco and his wife Antionetta give at their home, which was arranged on this occasion by anthropologist Sergio Grasso for a group of American students in residence in nearby Viterbo. As Sergio gave the students some socio-historical background on the region as well as the waves of Sardinian migration that have helped to define it, Francesco prepared the milk for the course.
As we sat listening to Sergio, Francesco readied a 50 liter pot of fresh sheep's milk for production. Even though his orders are sizable he still maintains a connection to small scale production; indeed when he first came to Tuscania he started by making 50 liters per day for sale. Watching him watch that pot slowly transform milk into something more one could see how well he knew every liter of milk in there, and every second of waiting for it to become the first cut.
In all of the classes that Francesco and Antionetta hold in there home, participants get to listen, watch, do and taste the stages of cheesemaking. It's a unique experience, both simple and elegant and as in all things, holding the product in our hands and forming it into being changes the entire relationship of us to things. Because let's face it, it is so damn easy to forget how things are made and when we are actually reminded of that, the how, and when we attach someone's face and voice and home to that thing well, that just about changes everything.
In a lot of ways, Francesco and Antionetta are some of the best examples of what makes Tuscania a pretty awesome place. They make people feel at home immediately, and on any given day the house buzzes with people passing through for a coffee and a word or two. It's also commonplace to find them around town at any given moment: Mark and I bump into Antionetta often enough at the bank and the bakery that we assume we must be following each other, and as we were walking around town with Mary Jane and Fulvio a few weeks ago Francesco's white van came rolling down the narrow streets. They're not from here originally but they've made a home here, and they produce something that makes this area remarkable.
You know, traditions are a really powerful thing, and nostalgia can put a gloss on that makes every Madeleine of our bygone years seem ever more sweet, and impossible to reproduce. I could never deny the power of my own memories and over these past months I've put many of them here to share with anyone who might stop by. Moreover, traditions are guideposts for a great many things and even if they are invented and reproduced and not fixed in time they still help us to recognize ourselves and others. But nostalgia is different, an emotional call towards those traditions and it is at times a slippery slope without a handrail. Too often we find ourselves being seduced by the idea of 'foods like your mom used to make' or 'classic' products done in the 'traditional' way. And it's easy to get sucked in, isn't it? Because we want to feel safe and good and innocent, and those ideas make us feel safe and good and innocent. Italy is full of people on this quest to preserve an easier time, and too often the places that should be giving us a quality experience are instead resting on their laurels and hoping we don't look behind the curtain. Perhaps that's part of what makes Francesco and Antionetta so important, because what they do could not be more traditional, but they do it with a care and a vibrancy that makes it exciting, and fun.
Legend has it that giants once roamed the island of Sardinia, and do you know what? I think I'll believe it.
Cacio e pepe Biscotti
100 grams grated Pecorino (invest in a Microplane and thank us later)
100 grams butter
150 grams all purpose flour
1 egg yolk
20 grams freshly ground pepper
1. Combine Pecorino, butter, flour and egg yolk into a food processor and mix until the ingredients come together as a dough.
2. Roll the dough into a log about an inch thick (that's a 2 pound coin, or a silver dollar, or the biggest coin you can think of)
3. Roll the log in the freshly ground pepper so that the entire cylinder is evenly coated in pepper. Use baking paper or a Silpat for ease but it shouldn't stick to any surfaces.
4. Refrigerate the logs for a few hours, to firm.
5. Cut .5 centimeter slices of the dough
6. Bake at 180 C for ten minutes, turning the tray halfway through.