GREGORIO ROTOLO’S CHEESES: A TASTE OF ABRUZZO
WORDS BY GIORGIA CORTE | PHOTOS BY LAURA MAJOLINO AND FRANCESCA MOSCHENI
A shepherd in love with his animals and the mountains. A master cheesemaker that reinterprets tradition, inventing unique recipes for rare, precious cheeses. A production process that is attentive to the territory and its raw materials; a mission pursued with passion, giving us fascinating stories and incredible flavors.
When we arrive at Gregorio Rotolo’s farm in Scanno, 1300 m asl (4265 ft asl) in the heart of the National Park of Abruzzo, we have to seek him out in the sheepfold. We hear nothing but the wine and the persistant bleating of the sheep in this remote, enchanted angle of Italy. The world is immersed in green.
A big, tall man emerges from the wooden door of a shed that seems like it was taken straight from a fairy tale. He has a long, thick beard and enormous hands that know how to work the earth as well as they can cuddle a tiny lamb like it was a kitten.
Despite his red seafarer’s cap, Gregorio Rotolo could not be mistaken for anything but a shepherd. His love for animals, the earth, and his work is apparent in every gesture and every word, such as in the way he looks at the lamb he carries in his arms as it sucks on his finger.
It is impossible for Gregorio to imagine himself in another trade. “I’m 54 years old and for about 60 years I’ve been with my sheep,” he says with a smile. In fact, Gregorio grew up among these animals. As a child, he skipped school so he could take the sheep to pasture with his father, who had been a long-time immigrant in Venezuela. His father returned to his home country to start a family, opening a butchery and installing a barn to personally breed his animals in order to be sure of a good quality meat.
The farm that grew from this paternal enterprise 60 years ago is today managed by Gregorio, his sister, his nieces and nephews, and a few trusted collaborators. It includes 1500 sheep, 100 goats, and 40 cattle and produces 200 quintals of certified organic cheese annually, a product that is appreciated by the best restaurateurs.
He produces fifteen different types of cheese, and uses only raw milk so as to conserve all the nutritional properties and original flavor. His cheese recipes begin with tradition, but are reinterpreted by Gregorio; he creates such unique products, he had to invent new names for some of them, as nothing similar exists. This is the case for “Gregoriano,” one of his five pecorino cheeses. You can’t mistake the sheep origins of this sweet, aromatic cheese, which is surprisingly soft after a brief period of 40 days’ aging.
All of his sheep cheeses, from the black rind Scanno cheese massaged with flour and extra virgin olive oil as per custom, to the traditional recipes revisited by Gregorio’s creative genius, have a special flavor according to their aging and the milk’s pasture of provenance.
Considering the National Park of Abruzzo represents 70% of all European pastures, an incredible variety of cheeses are sure to be made from this diversity: from soft cheeses aromatic with scents of flowers and honey to high altitude cheeses conserved for months under the snow. Don’t be surprised if every time you taste these cheeses, the flavors and textures are rewarding and unpredictable.
Every one of Gregorio’s creations presents more than flavor, evoking a unique story. Browsing his cheese production is like listening to fairy tales that grandparents once told, warmed by the breath of animals in the sheepfold.
This is how we discover the Pecorino Brigantaccio. According to legend, this piquant, savoury cheese came into being by local brigands who used the caves to conserve the loot from their raids. And then there’s the Formaggio dell’Orso, the “cheese of the bear,” an incredible, round, little caciotta that hides wild berries within its heart, gathered from the mountains.
In the aromatic cellars of the Rotolo home, the oak barrels don’t contain wine, but are instead full of aging Caciocavallo covered in wheat bran. In the shadows, enormous cylindrical shapes emerge like ghosts. Gregorio’s famous Trittico is housed in these containers, giving this intuitive union of cow, goat, and sheep milk its distinct flavors and quality.
These cheeses are rare, precious, and inextricably tied to the natural resources of the territory – to the animals and their diet, containing strictly healthy, raw materials of hay, alfalfa, straw, and wild pea.
It’s with a heavy heart that he periodically abandons his mountains to travel throughout Italy, selling his products in fairs and restaurants and to generally be active in the arena that is his least favorite, if necessary, part of being an entrepreneur. “I get the blues when I have to leave my sheep behind. I’m a shepherd and that’s the only thing I know how to do, but for the future of my farm I have to get my product out there. I have to get it to the consumers who can understand it and appreciate it. I have a tough job. I don’t get vacation time, my animals eat every day, and the sacrifices I have to make are enormous. But the satisfaction I get is even greater. If I had to be born again, I would choose to live my life exactly the same. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
This bring a smile to our faces that might even be a little bit envious for all the peace and awareness his words express. For who among us can say the same?