By Dr. Francesco Tiezzi, Department of Animal Science at NC State & Ashley See, CFSA Communications Coordinator | Thursday, July 18, 2019 – 

Caciocavallo Podolico aging in the cave at Az Agr Pessolani

Last September, NC State animal science research and native Tuscan, Dr. Francesco Tiezzi took a tour group of people who have worked in food and agriculture around the world, with students, faculty, and staff from NC State, plus CFSA’s Executive Director, Roland McReynolds, and several CFSA members on a tour of farm and food businesses in southern and central Italy.  

If you want to read more about the trip from Roland’s perspective, don’t miss his article here

The tour explored many farm and food manufacturing enterprises that help small- and mid-scale family farms in Italy to thrive and protect the environment. For the sake of this blog post series, we’ll share seven of the stops.

In the first part of this two-part series, we’re looking at three very different dairies using three very different milks–sheep, water buffalo, and cow–to make cheese. Here’s the lineup:

  • Caseificio Cugusi – a 57-year-old sheep dairy making pecorino cheeses
  • La Maremmana – a water buffalo dairy specializing in making true mozzarella
  • Pessolani – a cow dairy making a traditional Podolican cheese that’s at risk of extinction

Read on to learn about the unique ways that these cheesemakers and farmers are modernizing the craft of some of the most beloved traditional foods throughout Italy.


Cugusi Silvana Dairy – a 57-year-old sheep dairy 

Caseificio Cugusi is located in Montepulciano, Italy

Caseificio Cugusi Silvana is a family-owned dairy, dedicated to processing sheep’s milk into traditional and innovative dairy products. Caseificio Cugusi is located in Montepulciano (province of Siena in Tuscany) and consists of one processing facility with a store, in addition to a store located into the historic town of Montepulciano. They process about 20 tons of sheep milk weekly, mostly from other farms but also from their own flock (~900 ewes of Sarda breed).

Pasture-based dairy sheep in Tuscany

The dairy sheep production in Tuscany is mostly pasture-based. Ewes are fed hay during summer and winter months when rainfall is scarce and so is pasture production. The advantage of the Sarda breed is frugality, i.e. the ability to use low-quality, highly-lignified forage so that production can be sustained when nutrition from the pasture is scarce. The ewes are also fed barley during milking times (twice a day).

A handful of barley

The main product is Pecorino Toscano, closely related to the Pecorino Romano, but with more variability in terms of aging time (one week to 18 months). The Caseificio Cugusi has also been keen on innovation, providing different flavors to the consumers. Ashes, walnut leaves and grape marc can be used as external agents and added during the aging of the wheel. Black pepper or grated truffle can be added to the curd. But the most innovative products proposed by this dairy are brie-like and blue-cheese-like products, which are technically difficult due to the high content of fat and protein in the sheep milk.

Caseificio Cugusi has recently opened a tasting room, where groups can learn about the production and taste the different kind of cheese produced, paired to fruit spreads made by local producers.

Cheese platter at the Caseificio Cugusi tasting room

Curious about the management of the sheep? Read all about it over on Caseificio Cugusi’s website.


La Maremmana
A buffalo dairy where true mozzarella is made

Dairy buffalo cows at La Maremmana

La Maremmana Farm and Caseificio Inno al Sole is a buffalo dairy farm located in Principina a Terra (province of Grosseto, a region of Tuscany). The farm mostly produces dairy products made from the milk of buffalo (Bubalus bubalus) and consists of 450 hectares (1,100 acres) of flat land, with another 200 hectares (500 acres) of hillside land in the nearby town of Capalbio. La Maremmana has 400 lactating buffalo cows and all the milk is processed into fresh and aged cheeses on the farm. Formerly a dairy cattle operation, the farm is located in a plain area, with ~600 mm (~24 inches) annual rainfall and sandy soils. 

Dairy buffalo cows at La Maremmana

Biogas at La Maremmana

Recently, the farm installed a biogas production plant, which produces electricity and heats water. The plant runs using cow manure and corn that’s grown on-farm. While the electricity can be used on the farm or sold back to the electrical company, the hot water is used in the cheesemaking facility.

Unlike in southern Italy, there wasn’t a demand for buffalo dairy products when the farm converted. The creation of a processing plant was pivotal. Today, the dairy produces a dozen different cheeses, with mozzarella as the top product. With a creative cheesemaker, La Maremmana uses its unique milk to produce regionally untraditional ones similar to brie, blue cheese, and taleggio.

Farm store at La Maremmana Farm

Farm store at La Maremmana Farm

The cheesemaking facility has a store attached, where products can be purchased directly on the farm. A glass screen separates the store from the cheesemaking room so that customers can watch production while purchasing or tasting.


Az Agr Pessolani

Az Agr Pessolani in Abriola, Italy

Az Agr Pessolani is a third-generation dairy and beef farm located in Abriola (a province of Potenza, a region of Basilicata). The main product of the farm is the Caciocavallo Podolico, a traditional cheese of southern Italy and Slow Food presidium.

Caciocavallo Podolico aging in the cave at Az Agr Pessolani

Pessolani consists of 200 hectares (~500 acres) located on mountainous terrain where approximately 300 lactating cows are raised. The farm also manages about 800 hectares (~2,000 acres) of public land, located at a higher altitude and is used as summer pasture. The climate is typical of the Mediterranean mountains, with ~600 mm (24 inches) of rain concentrated during spring and fall as well as snowfall during winter.

The Caciocavallo is sold through the farm store, located in the historic town of Abriola and through some distributors. As of recent, Pessolani also sells the cheese to Eataly, a high-end food store located in several cities around the world. The in-town farm store helps distribute its products locally. Pessoani’s store also produces other products–that are not suitable to be sold through distributors–such as butter, mozzarella, and fresh cuts of beef. The store also sells pork, chicken, eggs, and bread from other producers.

Cows at Az Agr Pessolani in Abriola, Italy

Pessoani’s farm is oriented toward dairy and beef production, leveraging a low-input system and using marginal land. The breeds the farm chooses to raise all have dual-purposes–the local breed Podolica, the cosmopolitan Simmental, and Alpine Grey, which is native to the Alps in northern Italy. The cows are kept on pasture year-round and fed hay when grass is scarce. A small amount of supplementation with local farm-processed grains is provided at each milking twice per day. The dual-purpose of the cows and the lack of intensity in the farming system, allows the cows to produce 15-20 kgs (33-44 lbs) of milk per day, on average. However, the high content of fiber in their diet yields a high-fat content, and the use of the pasture and high-quality hay allows the milk to have a high content of carotenoids, which is seen in the yellow color of the curd.

The vitamin-rich milk makes the curd vibrantly yellow at Az Agr Pessolani Woman making cheese at Az Agr Pessolani in Abriola, Italy

The farm processes the milk into cheese each day. While the cheese ages on the farm for the first phase, it is then moved to a cave in the historic town next to the farm store for the second. Once used as a cellar, the cheese cave is property of the farm. An optimal spot for aging cheese, the cave maintains a steady temperature and rate of humidity without air conditioning.

Making mozzarella at Az Agr Pessolani in Abriola, ItalyThe first aging stage of Caciocavallo Podolico is aged on-farm at Az Agr Pessolani

The cheese cave at Az Agr Pessolani

All calves born on the farm are raised for replacement dairy cows or beef. Market weight for these breeds varies from 500-700 kgs (1,100-1,500 lbs) live weight, which is reached between 18-24 months. Their diet consists of farm hay and local grains. The animals are kept in straw-bedded loose stalls with access to an outdoor paddock. The breed and the diet allow the meat to be lean, fulfilling the requirements for the slow-cooked dishes of local cuisine.

Cows in their straw-bedded loose stalls at Az Agr Pessolani in Abriola, Italy


Want more?

You’re in luck! This is a two-part series. In A Closer Look: The Farms & Food of Central & Southern Italy (Pt. 2), we focus on farms that produce specialty meats and pasta!

It’s worth noting that Dr. Tiezzi is organizing another trip for this fall. The 2019 tour will run from Sept. 28 to Oct. 6 and focus on Tuscany, with another outstanding lineup planned. Get more information on the 2019 trip here.

All photos courtesy of Dr. Francesco Tiezzi