Silvio Pistone makes his Giuncà and Tuma cheese the traditional way:
In Borgomale, Italy, a small village near Alba, Silvio Pistone makes sheep’s milk cheese the old-fashioned way. Anna Lisa Nada, the owner of the winery where my husband Matt and I stayed had recommended we visit him and his thirty Pecore delle Langhe. Sheep of the Langhe are native to this area in northwestern Italy. In 1950 there were over 45,000 Pecore delle Langhe, today there are less than 1,800, so cheese made from their milk is an endangered species!
We drove up to Silvio’s farm at the top of a hill. A curly haired man walked toward our car as we parked and waved. “Buona sera! I am Silvio.” Silvio Pistone smiled and pointed to a small wooden building that looked like a fairy tale cottage. “That is where you will try the cheese later,” he said.
“I have always had a passion for cheese, since I was five years old,” he laughed. He told us that he had worked as a tile setter for twenty years with his father. Eighteen years ago, he had wanted to know if he could rear sheep and become a cheesemaker using centuries-old methods. “My father thought I was crazy. Crazy to leave a good job, crazy to get into an industry everyone was leaving.”
Secrets of Silvio’s “Cheese Lab”
Silvio led us to the house that he and his father had rebuilt from an old barn. His wife Antonella greeted us at the door. Silvio walked us through their home toward his cheese lab. “Here it is,” he said, and opened a heavy door that insulated the cool room. Fresh cheese dripped from drain holes in small plastic baskets lined up on a stainless steel cart. The cheese looked like yogurt scattered with grains. Circles of cheese aged on a rack.
“This time of year, the sheep do not produce as much milk,” Silvio said. “I do not give my sheep hormones or chemicals to increase production.” He showed us the large pot he pours the milk into, the paddle he stirs it with, and the powdered rennet he adds to the milk. When the mixture thickens, he pours it into baskets.
The cheeses that drained on the cart were from this morning’s milking. They would soon become Giuncà, a highly prized and rarely made regional cheese.
“Years ago, I was buying sheep in the High Langhe hills. The lady there made very good Giuncà. I asked her for the recipe and she gave it to me. Ever since then, I make Giuncà, the traditional way. It’s raw, no boiling, no pasteurization, no salt. It’s very fresh and good for you.”
Silvio’s experiments: triple layered cheeses and Moscato d’Asti
The cheeses drying on vented racks were called tuma. These were salted. They had not yet formed a rind, and Silvio flipped them daily. He held up a layered cheese and laughed. “This is my experiment.” He had used three different sized baskets to make the cheeses and combined them so their flavours melded as they aged. Nearby, ten cheeses towered on a shelf. “This is another experiment. I soaked them in Moscato d’Asti. It makes a nice dessert. I like to experiment. I am always trying new things.”
Few farmers make Giuncà and tuma
Nowadays, few farmers make Giuncà and tuma. “It’s very hard work and it takes a lot of time,” Silvio said. “It would be better if there were more producers. People would know the cheeses better, and it would be easier to buy them.” In the past, working families in the Langhe made their own Giuncà and tuma. Tuma is stored in glass jars and refrigerated. This provided cheese to eat in the winter when the sheep do not produce enough milk.
“Would you like to see the sheep?” Silvio asked.
Silvio summons the sheep with a whistle
The sun was setting as we ascended a flight of stairs outside. We entered the empty sheep barn. Hay covered the wood floors and was stacked in corners. “Don’t speak too loudly or move too quickly,” Silvio said. “The sheep are used to my voice, not yours.” We followed him outdoors. Silvio walked up a hill and whistled. Within seconds sheep trotted up to a gate. The instant Silvio opened it they ran down into their pen, bleating. They were white, with what looked like red and green spray paint on their fleece.
One hour to milk one sheep!
Silvio piled hay into their trough. The sheep ate eagerly. Silvio had started with six sheep and thought he would “never get through it” when it took him one hour to milk one sheep. He showed us the wood station he built to milk the sheep one by one. At one point he had fifty sheep. “It was too much.” In 2011, he reduced his herd to thirty to devote more time to tastings.
Three sheep ate out of his hand
“Where do you get the hay to feed them?” Matt asked Silvio.
“The hay comes from my cousin’s farm,” Silvio said, “The sheep also eat grasses in the field. It is very good grass and hay. The better their food, the better the cheese tastes.”
“How often do you feed them?” I asked.
“I feed them twice a day. It’s easy to milk them in the morning. They are hungry! After I milk them, I mark their fleeces to remember which ones I have milked!”
Silvio gave Matt some hay to feed them as I took pictures. Three sheep ate out of his hand.
Tasting cheese in a fairy tale cottage
Silvio asked if we were ready to try the cheese. We stepped into the fairy tale cottage. Silvio lit two tall candles on a table set with china and silverware.
“Would you like more light?” he asked.
“No, è perfetto.”
He poured us water, a local red wine, and offered the “grande” tasting of seven cheeses, a seasonal dish, and a dessert for twenty-five Euros each.
Silvio left to get the first cheese. I felt like we had stepped back in time. The pleasant room was dark but I could see pictures on the wall. Garlic and dried herbs hung from the ceiling. Pots and pans hung from a wall. We ate delicious focaccia bread and grapes. I consulted an app on my phone for a word Silvio used. The screen glowed in the old room.
Giuncà and salted focaccia
Silvio returned with Giuncà. Eaten within days of being made, Giuncà is soft and tender, thicker than yogurt. We ate it from a bowl with a spoon. “Wow, I’ve never had cheese like this before,” I told Matt. “It’s so clean.” We spread it on the salted focaccia. The unsalted Giuncà was a perfect match.
“I will bring you the next cheese,” Silvio said and left. When he returned, Silvio asked what we thought of the Giuncà. I told him that even Matt, who does not like cheese, loved it. He nodded.“È molto buono! This is why it is important to preserve the old techniques of cheese-making.”
Next, the tuma
We tried two-day old tuma. I tasted the hay we had smelled in the barn. Antonella brought us a plate of tomatoes from her garden. They complemented the cheese and wine perfectly. Silvio brought more cheeses. They had become drier and sharper as they aged.
The strongest, and perhaps, best came last
Silvio brought us a fruit tart with the last two cheeses. “Do you like strong cheese?” Silvio asked. These were aged for one and two years. Silvio watched us try them. When he saw my reaction, he said he would be right back. He returned with a seven-year-old cheese. Silvio cautioned me to try only a pinch. Three weeks later, I swear I can still taste it. I loved that it was sharper than the strongest blue cheese I’ve eaten, yet the delicate flavor remained.
Farm tours and cheese tastings
“Do you want to increase your business from tourists?” I asked.
“Sì, sì. We can accommodate twenty-two people. We do tours here often. It is good to introduce people to the sheep, the cheese, and the old ways. It is nice to meet people from everywhere.”
“It started as a joke,” Silvio said, “People kept asking me for farm tours and cheese tastings. So I put a few cheeses out on a table. Well, it worked! Tourism has been like manna from heaven.”
Treasure to carry home
We bought a jar of tuma to take home. Silvio gave us some fresh Giuncà too. He scooped it into a basket and wrapped it in a plastic bag. “It will be ready by morning.” I carried it like a treasure. We ate some Giuncà on our breakfast bread the next day. I brought the rest to Anna Lisa when we checked out. She peered down at the bag.
“La Giuncà?” She asked. Her eyes widened.
“Sì, sì. È per lei.”
Her smile lit up her face. “Oh, grazie mille!” She ran off to refrigerate it. Thankful I could share this revered cheese, I wondered how long it had been since she’d enjoyed La Giuncà.
Photo credits: Heather von Bargen and Silvio Pistone
Useful Information about Cascina Pistone
Website: Silvio Pistone’s website (in Italian, but Google translate works fine if you highlight the text) is : Cascina Pistone
Address: Cascina Pistone Formaggio, SP429, Benevello, Province of Cuneo, Italy
Guides: Silvio does not speak much English but here are the contact details of two English-speaking guides who can arrange a visit to Silvio’s Lab, Farm, and the cheese tasting:
Piedmont Food and Wine. Simon Barnaby is my contact there.
Phone: Italy Tel: +39 34 755 77891 or UK Tel: +44 (0) 207 193 0706