Cheese week! Oh how I do love cheese. This week we spent the days tasting, shepherding, and making cheese. A fresh start to the week, a group of three of us woke up early to meet Toto, The estates own Shepherd just a short walk up into the hills from my house. The plan was to help him milk the sheep…however this is quite a feat. Milking sheep is hard! Getting the right pressure and hand motion to get the milk out is a challenge, not to mention it takes some serious forearm strength. None of us even got through one sheep on our own. Thankfully Toto was there to chuckle at us and help us along. He’s a little fellow generally in a blue jumpsuit, who rides along in his vespa to round the sheep up throughout the estate and push them to graze along the hills. Whenever I see him on his little vespa now I crack up. He spends his days milking the sheep, making cheese and vespa-ing his flock around.
The following day we spent a whole day making cheese with Fillipo, a local cheese maker down the road. He spends his entire day making pecorino and ricotta. We tasted the fresh sheep milk which is delicious. It’s rich and much sweeter than I imagined. He went through the processes of different kinds of cheese making and we tasted along the way. A week old pecorino called “primo sale” or first salt, a three month and six month old pecorino. Later in the day we made fresh ricotta which here is made from basically the leftover whey and some milk. We had a visit to the cheese closet which houses all the cheese he is either brining or aging. During the downtime, I made friends with the big white sheep dog who get’s to hang around the property, said hello to young mothers and their lambs, and discovered Filipo’s horse, he’s young and being trained to behave himself around his sheep friends.
A few days later I had the privilege of visiting Fillipo again but this time to spend the day as a “Shepherd” and experience what it’s like to be with the sheep all day. We started our day at 5:30am in order to make it to Phillipo by 6, thankfully he graciously had coffee waiting for us…again that unmistakable Italian hospitality. Elke, Jarrod and I then set off down the bumpy roads, the sunrise ahead of us, to follow Fillipo’s son Enzo, and their shepherd Constantino who is from Romania and has lived here in Sicily for 6 years now working for Phillipo. He’s an interesting fellow, from the exterior, he seems harsh and weathered, but I discovered throughout the day there is a softer side to this mysterious man who hikes the hills and rounds up the sheep. A shepherds life is actually quite solitary. Days are spent generally alone for many hours surrounded only by the flock and a gang of sheep dogs. We hiked up the hill a short distance, and Constantino rounded up the sheep and down they came along the hill right in front of us to be guided to the milking pen, sheep dogs in tow. The beauty of this scene is hard to put into words. It’s possible I may never experience something like this again. Along with the flock came a fresh new lamb, they carry these babies down the hill by their front legs which at first I thought was cruel, but they don’t seem to mind. Once the baby had made it’s way down I got to carry her down the hill while the men guided the sheep, what a special experience! She called out for her mother off and on with her tiny lamb bleats. Once the flock had settled she was able to join her mother in the milking pen. We watched as all the sheep were milked with care, and then sent off again into the hillsides to graze. We had a short break making Ricotta back at Fillipo’s before heading back out to join the sheep and have a picnic in the hillsides with Enzo and Constantino. We hiked all the way up the hill before settling into our picnic spot, where we enjoyed panini we had made the night before, fruit, and a giant hunk of Fillipo’s cheese that Enzo had brought along. This cheese was created from the milk from the sheep we were watching along the hillsides who ate the same greens we were sitting on in the fields. I’m sure thats an experience I will ever be able to say I will have again.
As the day came to a close, I was able to take in the magic that surrounded it. The care and tending of the sheep in itself is a wonderful thing. These sheep are happy, healthy, and living in their natural environments, being raised in a way where they can still enjoy their lives but also give to these people beautiful and delicious products created from their milk. This is a cycle that should be praised and greatly appreciated, and something that is so rare in today’s modernized industrial driven world. I can only hope that this way of life can continue to be preserved in all the places it still exists, and hope for the future that it could make a comeback.There is such pride in this work, when we asked Fillipo if he ever goes on vacation, he replied that he is on vacation everyday. He loves his work, and it absolutely shows in the preparation and care he has for his products, and the lucky animals that graze happily. I have really been thinking even more about our own food products back at home and where things come from. As I learn more and more information about how things are made versus how they should be made, I will be taking an even closer look at the products that I use myself. I think visiting some more sheep will definitely be my to do list.