Taking a food tour in Italy is like discovering the secrets behind some of the world's most tantalizing cuisine. If you love Italian food (and who doesn't), food and wine tours in Italy are a great way to go a little deeper than just eating great Italian food - to learning how it's made or the tradition behind it. We've taken several food tours in Bologna and enjoyed them, especially one we did in the historic city, and another in the gastronomic region north of Bologna so we were excited to visit a local cheese producer with our friends Alessio and Arianna of Km Zero Tours.
A Foodie Pilgrimage
A little off the beaten path, Podere Il Casale in Pienza sits along the 10th century pilgrimage roads that once connected Rome and Jerusalem with the small towns in the Italian countryside. Today, the area draws foodies and wine lovers from all over looking to discover Italy's best: stunning scenery, world-class wines, and authentic foods, like Pienza's amazing pecorino cheese. Pienza is located between Siena and Montepulciano in southern Tuscany, not far from the picturesque town of Monticchiello. The 65 hectare farm and restaurant at Podere Il Casale have been a labor of love for owners Sandra and Ulisse, originally from Switzerland, since they started in 1991.
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The first residents to greet us were the crowing peacocks. Several of them strutted around displaying those incredible turquoise and green colors. The centerpiece of the property, a 600-year-old stone farmhouse where the owners live, cook, and service the restaurant, is backdropped by the jaw-dropping Val d'Orcia, the iconic Tuscan landscape you’re familiar with even if you’ve never been here before. Today the valley is a UNESCO world heritage area and so picturesque it’s easy to see why producers chose this area to film scenes from Gladiator nearby, among other movies filmed in Italy.
The farm produces Tuscan pecorino cheese, a milder and less salty pecorino than the sharper, aged pecorino romano you might be used to. It's one of the regional foods Italy is known for. The farm is completely organic and the on-site restaurant features much of what is produced here and locally. Fresh homemade pasta, honey, cheeses, wine, extra virgin olive oil, saffron, and white truffles can all be enjoyed at the restaurant or purchased to take along.
We met Sandra who showed us around the property they began working in 1992 withsheep, goats, chickens, and peacocks. To ensure that everything they produce is chemical-free - especially the cheeses - only homeopathic veterinary care is used for all their livestock. Six large guard dogs including some Russian herders protect the other animals from predators like wolves and foxes, but they still have problems with the wild boar. Apparently the boar have a sweet tooth and can devastate a grape crop once they’ve ripened.
At the heart of keeping sheep and goats was Ulisse’s desire to learn cheesemaking, which he learned from local folks who’d been doing it for decades. Now he produces 20-30 different cheeses depending on the time of year. All of his cheeses are made from milk produced here from the 200 sheep and 80 goats. We found it so interesting that the cheeses can have different flavors month to month depending on what the animals are eating. Their cheeses are pecorinos from sheep’s milk, caprinos from goat’s milk, and a wonderful creamy ricotta. The cheeses are moved between coolers as they age. Some are cleaned with salt and water so they won’t turn into a blue cheese. Others are aged using natural mold instead of paraffin. And several are aged with aromatics like black walnut leaves, grape leaves, or rosemary and basil. They all looked and smelled delicious.
The production here is impressive and all done on site - from milking in their professional dairy to finishing in their modern cheese aging and storage facility. We learned a bit of food history as well about Tuscan bread. It seems that at one time salt was so valuable it was only used for cheese making and preserving food, but never in bread. This tradition continues to this day in this part of Tuscany. So if you're surprised that the Tuscan-style bread you’re eating here is a little bland for your palette, this is why.
Our favorite part of the day was relaxing al fresco under the pergola enjoying some fresh baked bread with samplings of cheese and jams, like a scene straight from Under the Tuscan Sun. Sandra explained each of the cheeses one by one and just how they were made so you could taste the difference from cow and sheep milk, and even the subtleties of what the animals were grazing on at that time of year.
We started with a fresh sheep cheese, a soft pecorino cheese aged for only one month. Then each cheese that followed was aged longer and tasted very different. There was a semifinished sheep cheese, aged for 2-5 months, with a very nice delicate aroma and a bit harder. Next was a sheep cheese with a heavier rind, much harder and stronger in both aroma and taste and aged at least 5 months. My favorite. The hard goat cheese is aged for a minimum of 5 months and was very different than the others but delicious. The sampling also included raw milk ricotta, sweet and smooth, and a soft cheese similar to American cream cheese but made from goat’s milk. Each cheese was accompanied by honey or one of Sandra’s jams which are all made here with fresh herbs and spices. All of this paired nicely with a soft young white wine made from grapes grown here, La Sibilla.
There’s a lot happening at Podere Il Casale depending on the time of year you visit and it all revolves around the slow food movement, an approach to small scale production that’s sustainable, produces good food, and protects the local environment at the same time - all values behind the slow food and Tuscany slow travel movement. Sandra has Garden Events where you pick your own veggies as well as popular cooking classes. Sandra and Ulisse also support Terra Madre, a network of small scale producers dedicated to farm-to-table sustainability and biodiversity. You can also sign-up to watch and learn cheesemaking as they’ve been making it here for centuries. And if you don’t mind getting a little dirty, you can help milk the sheep. That’s definitely on our list for next time. That, and eating more cheese!
If You Go
Km Zero Tours can arrange an in-depth tour here, or a full schedule of interesting local producer tours throughout Tuscany over the course of a few days. They're slow travel experts.
Podere Il Casale - via Podere Il Casale 64, 53026 Pienza (Siena), Italy
- Guided farm tours are available in Italian, English, German and French
- 8 campsite pitches are available at the farm for a truly unique and rustic experience
- One of the most interesting and scenic Italy food tours we've taken