In Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, the small town of Roncofreddo has a local tradition of ageing cheese in underground, hay-lined pits. One affineur – a craftsperson who carefully ages cheeses to their full ripeness – is continuing the tradition, while experimenting with local ingredients to influence the final profile of the cheeses he cares for.
Photos + interview editing by Alecia Wood
Interview translation by Sashana Souza Zanella
What do you produce?
We are fundamentally affinatori (the Italian term for ‘affineurs’) here at La Fossa Dell’Abbondanza. What we do is ageing cheese, but mainly in the fossa – a technique of ageing cheese in a pit in the ground. This is typical from Roncofreddo, to age cheese in these underground holes. All the works I do on cheeses are external interventions – we work with the environment where the cheeses are aged to influence what the cheese tastes and smells like in the end.
Can you explain a little about the fossa?
The work starts in July. We prepare the fossa by lining it with hay by hand. We place the cheese in cotton bags – cow, goat and sheep’s milk cheeses all together – and put the cheeses inside.
We seal the hole with a natural glue made from flour and vinegar, and leave them in there for 100 days. The fermentation happens in the first week, it’s anaerobic so it absorbs all the oxygen in the hole, then we leave the cheese to rest and develop.
This sealed fossa here in my shop is 4.5 metres deep and 3.5 metres wide. It’s filled with cheese right now – there are 4500 cheeses inside. The cheeses develop and change because they cannot breathe. At the end, there will be 4500 totally different shapes of cheeses because the cheese adapts to the space it has.
It’s a tradition that has more than 500 years.
What happens when you open the fossa?
We open it in November. It’s the most important moment of the year, because we don’t know exactly how the cheeses will be. The first thing we look for is the growth of the moulds, it’s a completely natural penicillium candidum. We have to pump air into the hole because otherwise it’s dangerous to enter it. We do that for two days before taking the cheeses out.
After the 100 days, it’s a moment of stress and happiness at the same time. It’s a really special moment of the year.
You don’t make these cheeses, but you take care of their maturation. Can you talk a bit about who produces the cheeses initially?
The sheep’s milk cheese comes from cheesemakers here in Emilia-Romagna, from animals eating in nature in the mountains, not in a shed. The goat and cow’s milk cheeses are from Lombardy and Piedmont.
For each cheese we have one producer, who has to send a sample in advance so we can test it to see what the end result will be. Every bag with the cheese inside has a number for traceability, so we know which cheesemaker made that cheese.
How did you become an affineur?
I have done this since forever. I’ve been following my father since I was 10, so more than 50 years.
My daughter, Anna, started with me in 1992. She represents the fifth generation of affinatori in our family. She introduced new techniques, for instance ageing cheeses in wine barrels. We are always working with different gases to see which aromatics will come out of the different cheeses – carbon, hydrogen – always cutting out the oxygen.
We always try to work together, foraging for different wild ingredients and finding local products to put onto the cheeses to give them different aromas and flavours.
Which of your cheeses are your most proud of?
We also age cheeses outside of the fossa. One is a pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) aged with crushed wild blackberries on the outside. The blackberries are very acidic and astringent, which helps to preserve the cheese, and evolving the flavours and aromatic compounds that it has. It helps the cheese to keep a milky, yoghurty quality on the inside.
We can’t say when it will be ready because the moulds are always evolving, so what we do is turn the cheese every one to three days, and when it’s completely covered in mould that’s when they’re ready. The cheese needs its time to evolve.
We make a washed rind cheese that we wash with passito, a typical local sweet wine. Now we’re trying it with a sauvignon blanc type. We tried many types of sauvignons. The heavy wines with more character react much more strongly on the cheese, bringing out an animal, meaty aroma.
We also have a cheese called blu notte (‘blue night’) that we worked on for four years in order to give it the taste of cappuccino and chocolate. We apply cocoa beans to the outside of the cheese.
You have to learn so much about the moulds, how they evolve and are created. It’s an unknown world.
Do you enjoy your work?
This is my work – always working with the external environment of the cheeses. I have fun doing it.
The greetings I receive from my clients, their face of satisfaction, makes me continue. But there is also the challenges I put for myself in my mind – we have a new project, we want to start and see what happens – the new ideas push me to continue.
Our focus is to always do something new – that’s bella, thinking of a project and working out how to realise it. It’s new every day, that’s the most beautiful thing.