In which Debby contemplates buying a cow (or having one)

On Wednesday, Elizabeth and I went on an excursion to Caseificio Bertagni, a small, family-owned dairy near Castlenuevo Garfaganana, one of the gazillion towns dotting the Apuan alps around il Ciocco.

We went as part of the Gordon Conference, the conference that Dave was attending in Italy. Most of the people on the tour were Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) scientists who were also attending the conference.

scientists on a cheese tour

Something tells me these NMR folks don’t usually dress in paper lab coats, but that’s what we had to wear in order to maintain the “sterile” conditions in the cheese factory. That’s Elizabeth in the center of the pic. To her left is a lovely young woman from Estonia, who is studying in Brno, in the Czech republic. The woman behind her is from China, and is studying in Lille, France. The guy behind her is from Baltimore, and he’s at the U of Pennsylvania.

The folks at il Ciocco, our hotel, arranged the tour. They made bag lunches for everyone on the field trip, because the excursion began at 12:45 and lunch during the conference was always served from 12:30-1:30.

While waiting for the bus to show up, Elizabeth and I stopped by the dining room to see what we were missing that day. Turns out we were missing the best dessert of the week: authentic Italian tiramisu.


It looks like chocolate, but that’s just the top layer — delectable, rich, chocolate curls. Atop a stunning mass of mascarpone cheese, cream, egg yolks, espresso powder, and some kind of liquor.

It tasted as good as it looked. (We know, because we tried it.)

Our bag lunch dessert was much more modest: a mass-produced, pre-packaged apricot tart. I have no idea what it tasted like because I left it on the bus along with half of my sandwich and my banana. Sadly for me (and for everyone else who left their lunch bags on the bus), the driver went on a cleaning binge while we were learning about cheese. He threw away everything.

Elizabeth and I had signed up for the cheese tour under the mistaken impression that we would be making cheese, which turned out to not true. We got to watch the cheese-maker make cheese, which was more interesting than you might think.

smokin hot cheese guy

I call this the smokin’ hot cheese guy pic, because the cheese guy was smokin’ while the translator was telling us what we were going to see. Moments later we were ushered into a sweltering room to don paper lab coats, hats, and shoe covers, to preserve the “sterile” environment. Nobody seemed concerned about the cheese guy’s beard, however…

The cheese-maker spoke not a word of English, but the translator, a British woman whose parents were both Italian, was terrific, and the cheese-maker was clearly passionate about his work.

He made eye contact with each of us multiple times during his presentation. He talked about the testing process for the milk, the care that goes into ensuring that it is fresh and not contaminated.

in the cheese lab just cheesemaker

Who knew cheese-making required such technical-looking equipment? I think the scientists felt right at home. (Dontcha love those white boots, by the way?)

cheesemaker explains science of cheese

in the cheese lab

The cheese-maker showed us fresh milk in a 300-liter stainless steel tub, and milk that had been treated with rennet and something else (not, I hope, beard hair) to start turning it into curds and whey.

better pre cheese ie milk

Fresh milk

The curds and whey filled another 300-liter tub.

cheese with rennet and bacteria

The curds and whey tub

The cheese-maker showed us how he separates the curds and whey, first using a tool called a guitar (because it looks like a rectangular-shaped guitar) and then using something that looks like an oversized wire whisk crossed with a flattened bird cage.  He also showed us a three-pronged stick, but I don’t recall him using it. It could be he uses it to prod unruly guests at his dairy. I am glad to say he didn’t use it on any of us.

authentic cheesemaking equipment

Scary looking cheese-making implements, which probably double as torture tools.

more separatingAfter the cheese-maker separated the curds and whey, we watched as the whey was pumped into yet another stainless steel tub, where it was steamed to pasteurize it, as it was going to be turned into ricotta cheese.

closeup of moving the whey etc.The cheesemaker and his able assistant scooped the curds into plastic cheese molds, and then turned the cheese from one mold into another to hasten the draining process.

evening out molds

misto cheese in molds sheep and cowBy the next day, the cheese would have shrunk to half its size and begun to dry out, after which it would be placed in a refrigerator to continue aging.

cheese room light

The giant cheese-drying-out fridge

three month old pecorino

two week old funghi

pepper cheeseAfter the tour, we went into the shop, where we sampled three kinds of cheese, and some amazing strawberry jam and raw honey.

I have made fresh mozzarella cheese, but haven’t done so in ages. Watching the cheesemaker was very inspiring: part of me was ready to run out and stock up on rennet. But then I remembered: you need fresh milk to make fresh cheese.

Before I stock up on the rennet, I might have to buy a cow — which is better than having a cow — which is what I wanted to have when I realized that not only had the bus driver disposed of mine and everyone else’s half-eaten (or, in some cases, not-at-all-eaten) lunches, he had tossed the Swiss Army Knife that I’d used to open my salad dressing packet. I had left it in the bag because it was too difficult to get it back into my backpack while dining on the less-than-spacious bus.

Then Elizabeth reminded me, “Mom! We’re going to Switzerland! You can buy a new one.”

Perhaps I will. Stay tuned.


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