Stories of food telling about travels – the Podolica Cow of Puglia
Italy is a country where artisanship and food unite to tell an amazing story: They complement each other, they enrich each other. Undeniably, cheese is one of these poetic protagonists and storytellers when it tells a story of travel: the “transumanza”, or transhumance of Podolica cows.
In Puglia, if you walk through the forests of Gargano and Monti Dauni (Daunia mountains), you readily hear the echoes of some bells down the valleys: These are the bells of Podolica cows, the true masters of this landscape. It is from Podolia in Eastern Europe that thousands of years ago the Podolica cows “migrated” in long convoys. Direct descendants of the “Bos Primigenius” breed, the ancestor of all existing breeds of cows, the animal found its ideal habitat in southern Italy among woods and mountains. The Podolica cow quickly adapted to an outdoor-life in all weather conditions. In fact, to this day Podolica cows do not live in stables, but in a wild state, migrant and nomadic by nature. They travel for several kilometres a day in search of wild herbs. For this reason, they do not accumulate fat and they produce little milk – but the milk they do give carries the taste and aroma of grassy paths and forest fragrances.
The long grassy paths of Italy
Millions of animals – such as goats, sheep, horses, and cows – have participated in the ritual of “transumanza”, or transhumance, for thousands of years.These herds move from the Abruzzo mountains to the plains of Puglia, in pursuit of green pastures that span boot-shaped Italy. Wide paths of over 100 meters, dotted with fountains, taverns, and churches, are enlivened by the intense life of shepherds accompanying the cows and joined by their faithful shepherd dogs.
These fabulous paths, (called tratturi in the traditional local dialect) the “sheep tracks,” come alive in the childhood memories of elderly people, like grasslands in an idyllic world, almost disappeared today. They recall green pastures of daisies covered here and there by the tiny “umbrellas” of edible mushrooms, old paths of the traditional shepherds, who – covered by goatskin leather and accompanied by enormous shepherd dogs – drove the herds and conveyed the idea of primordial human migrations. Nowadays, Puglia preserves a few traces of these ancient customs. They are precious symbols of an ancient civilization, which you can touch and relive through the experience of transhumance.
The Caciocavallo cheese
The “Caciocavallo” cheese is a noble one, with an extraordinary maturation capability that further enhances its special sensory characteristics, such as fragrant herbs, bitter flowers, vanilla, and spices, making it one of the most aromatic mature cheeses in Italy. The production of Caciocavallo Podolico in Puglia is concentrated on the promontory of Gargano, where the cheese is still being produced for consumption and sale by families and in local markets. The “creation” process of this cheese is full of poetry and actually indescribable – a delicate operation that requires practice and skills. It is produced throughout the year, but the full-pace production takes place from March to May only. The maturation time ranges from three months to over a year.
There are three SlowFood-certificated producers of Caciocavallo Podolico cheese. Among them we visited Mr. Giuseppe Bramante at Masseria Paglicci, a beautiful and impressive rural farmhouse on the slopes of Gargano, which is one of the most important in the area for transhumances from Abruzzo to Puglia.
A slow-paced life, yet delicious
The extraordinary adaptability of the Podolica cows – their resistance to diseases and their rustic nature – enabled them to spread throughout Italy. However, today the breed’s aversion to stable life, limited daily yield of milk, and, fibrous and tough meats are causing a significant reduction in their population. Currently, the Podolica lives in the southern regions only (in Campania, Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia) and is often meticciata (cross bred). Back in 1983, we could count about 100 thousand pure specimens; today only 25 thousand animals are actually registered in the genealogical tree for this specific breed. Their movement through pristine landscapes and wild herbs infuses their milk with special and distinctive flavors and characteristics.