Italian regional food traditions come from amazing histories and legends; local specialties were made with simple products grown by local farmers directly in their fields. No supermarkets around to buy one’s food. Traditional recipes are one of Italy’s richness and are also a way to understand the Bel Paese from different points of view.
First of all, let’s try to understand what a Fossa is; it’s simply a deep pit. Nothing very special apart from its rich history and the “Fossa system” created by the Malatesta Family (which governed part of Romagna in the Medieval), for storing and hiding food from enemies.
Those were hard times where war was second nature for the people of Romagna; noble families fought each other for the control of the lands and sea (the harbour of Rimini isn’t far). So the need to store food in the borough was very important. Farmers started to dig deep holes in the ground. Here, tuff rocks are the results of nature’s millenary work.
The first Fossa were dug in the 15th century by farmers stored their pecorino cheese, previous made by them, in deep holes in the ground, covered with dirt and hidden from their enemies. Legend has it that a couple of cheese forms were forgotten in the fossa. After a few months, when the fossa was reopened, they found the forgotten cheese. Of course, they had to cut a piece and were pleasantly surprised by the delicious flavour the cheese had taken on. So much so, they started to put cheese in the fossa every year, to age for some months.
Over time, the producing process evolved until a rule was defined that set the D.O.P. cheese production.
The real and original fossa cheese is still produced here and only here. Most of the time, it is a family affair, passed from father to son, generation after generation, as it has been for the Pellegrini Family, one of the town’s oldest “infossatori” (owners of the fossa and responsible for curing the cheese). Marco and Mario are the last generation and they love their work.
Preparing the cheese takes a long time and every step must be followed according to the D.O.P. Rule. Each cheese must have certain characteristics, weight, shape, quality, age. Not every pecorino becomes a fossa cheese.
Marco and Mario are also cheese makers, but their main job is to fill the fossa with the cheeses brought by other producers. The fossa are all different and each “infossatore” has his own secrets.
First of all, the fossa must be prepared; walls must be burnt and sterilised as to get rid of any humidity and the germs from the last production. After fired out, fresh hay is laid and the walls are covered with a 10 cm thick insolation.
At the end of August, each producer chooses his “infossatore” and hands over his cheese. All of the cheese is put in a white cloth bag with a number. Each number represents a specific producer.
Now it goes in the fossa; a slow process, each cheese must be placed in the right position to mature and to avoid any differences between each another. One bag after the other, the “infossatore” fills the fossa. It’s rather difficult as each form weighs at least 2 kilos and each bag may contain up to 5 forms. Each bag lowered into the pit and placed to rest by hand.
That done, it’s time to close the fossa. This is when the magic starts. The fossa is sealed with a wooden board and then covered with chalk. No air must get in. Over a 3-month period, the cheese transforms itself, thanks to the fermenting tuff and hay. The fat melts away and what remains is the gold of Romagna.
It’s November and the work of Marco and Mario Pellegrini is ready to be uncovered. No one knows the result, not even them.
The chalk covering is removed and cheese comes out. Marco uses a protective mask and some oxygen to prevent him from breathing in any gases. This step is so important that some of the producers stop by to see how their cheese is. This defining moment determines their earnings and a year of hard work.
It’s a strange, exciting moment. Just imagine the strong smell of hay, cheese, wild herbs and tuff. Assaulting to your nose. Close your eyes. Think of all the tasty treats you’ve eaten in the area. A real emotion!
Everyone is waiting for a taste. The limited quantity (the only real fossa cheese is in Sogliano) will make it harder to have the chance of buying and eating this precious cheese. That is the reason for the annual Cheese Festival (La Sagra del formaggio di Fossa), celebrated with an official fossa opening done by the Major.
Not only cheese: Sogliano also offers many other little gems worthy of a visit and stay in Romagna.
Sogliano is in the Rubicone River Valley. Exactly the one that Caesar passed threw, throwing the dice. Again, drive along the SS 9, via Emilia. Go south towards the seaside. The borough is near the main town of Cesena.
If you’re visiting during the Summer and you’d like to discover more about Fossa cheese, please contact Mario and Marco Pellegrini, who have also created a small museum about the cheese’s production and traditions. (http://www.formaggiodifossa.it/english/index.html).
Also worth the visit, is the Ancient Records Museum, the Paper Museum and the Leonardo da Vinci museum.