In 1962, Raffaele Cugusi uprooted his entire family from an established life on the island of Sardinia and took them, sight unseen, to an abandoned farm in Tuscany. Italian farmers (mostly sharecroppers) were were leaving the land in droves for better paying factory or city jobs.
Raffaele, an entrepreneur with a vision, had an instinct for the opposite. He left home for a month long trip in search of land. These rolling hills between Montepulciano and Pienza looked like the perfect spot for grazing sheep and making Sardinian pecorino. (Pecora is the Italian word for sheep.)
Already in their late 40s, he and his wife, Maria, had already built a successful milk and cheese business from scratch in the remote village of Fonti, the highest town in Sardinia (3,200 feet). He wasn’t afraid of doing it all over again.
Maria, the eight children, and Maria’s blind mother did not want to leave home, but he gave them no choice. Silvana (front row, right) was only nine months old at the time. Salvatore, to the left of Silvana was born in Tuscany.
(photo credits: Cugusi Family)
The early days were excruciatingly difficult. Their new home was a cold, rundown farmhouse with a leaky roof and without proper electricity or running water. The smell of the stalls wafted into the house, where the family slept in shared beds to stay warm. Unlike being in the village in Sardinia where life centered around social activities in the piazza or at friends’ houses, they were isolated. It was several miles to the hill town of Montepulciano, and they were considered “foreigners” at school and in town.
Silvana Cugusi now has primary responsibility for running the caseificio (Italian word for cheese making operation). Her earliest memories are of her mother working tirelessly to be sure that the children were dressed properly, in clean clothes, and doing all of their schoolwork, so that they wouldn’t be excluded or teased in town.
Every child had a role on the farm and in the house. Rafael’s motto was, “When you work, your problems go away.” He had started herding sheep when he was five. So, everyone in the household worked whether or not it was the swinging sixties. Going to church on Sunday was the one hour when no one had to work.
Silvana recalls those early days and her father’s vision. Other families followed theirs, and today, all of the ten makers of Pecorino di Pienza DOP (named for the nearby town of Pienza) are Sardinian.
The key to Cugusi’s success then and now is the quality of the product itself. In the beginning, Raffaele took his cheese to the market in town, but soon, people came out to the caseificio to stand in line.
Over the years, Raffaele bought a farm for each of the children, all within view of one another. He died in 2012 at 97, pre-deceased by his wife. Silvana took the reins but relies on some of her siblings, who raise and graze the sheep to provide her with milk. She is training her daughter, Anna, to run the business.
Cheese is only made on certain days. On the day I visited, it was a cleaning day. I saw the large stainless steel containers where the sheep’s milk is heated at least to 35 degrees C (95 degrees F) and mixed with rennet to make it curdle into cheese…
Then, the plastic containers where the cheese drains and is molded into rounds. Afterwards, the rounds are rubbed with salt.
These were fresh from the day before.
Like her father, Silvana likes to try new things. She has expanded from the three original Pecorino cheeses (fresh, aged 2 mos, and aged 5 mos) to twenty. Along with the traditional levels of aging, she makes: aged in ashes (traditional way to preserve before refrigeration), aged in walnut tree leaves, and the Gran Riserva aged 18 to 24 mos.. She also has Pecorino with truffles, black pepper, hot peppers, or herbs, as well as fresh Ricotta. All of the products are made by hand and vary depending on where the sheep grazed, which milk was chosen for the cheese, and the rennet used.
In this video, she shows me the room where cheese is prepared for aging.
At the end of the visit, I tasted these cheeses:herbed (reminiscent of Roquefort), Gran Riserva and fresh.
The level of care and quality comes out in all of them while the characteristics of each is unique. The herbed was creamy and full of flavor. The Gran Reserve was distinguished, hard and wonderfully strong, And, the fresh was light and more delicately flavored.
I left with homemade pici, thick spaghetti-like pasta typical of the area, and some Pecorino di Pienza, to make the famous local dish Pici Cacio e Pepe (Pici with Pecorino and Pepper).
Cugusi ships throughout Italy
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