Gazelle. “That one over there,” says Renato Maunero, “she’s called Gazelle.” He was pointing to a nanny goat struggling to keep up with the rest of the 70 or strong herd and they grazed their way through a glade in the fields just south of the Piemonte hilltop towns of Cherasco and La Morra in northern Italy . Bells clinked in the warm, early evening light as an understanding spread through the group that milking time as approaching. Gazelle kept up with the herd, just, frequently stopping to graze and keep a wary watch.
Each one of Renato’s herd is named and expertly cared for by this Pan-like figure, an appreciation I learned as he described his hobby and passion evolving into a business as we chatted on a warm day ambling through a lightly wooded hillside.
“You have to choose this life,” says Renato. ‘There are no holidays. Ever.” Most farmers will tell a similar tale. It’s relentless, but very rewarding work, he says.
A lithe, athletic figure Renato glides across the sloping fields of the Langhe, a region more famous for its vineyards that provide wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco. His movements are toned by years of running and more recently keeping up with his herding dog and constant companion, Blu. In the Autumn the dogs become trusted truffle hunters, another speciality of the region.
Well known in the region for once a owning a popular sports shop in another local town, Bra, Renato swapped basketballs and tennis shirts for a more solitary life working as a goat wrangler and cheese maker, using only the raw milk from his herd. His life now follows the natural rhythms of the seasons rather than sporting fixtures. The ancient pastoral practice of transhumance, the movement of animals from summer to winter pastures, is key to his farming style. His philosophy is to follow the natural cycle of the seasons, and while the farm is not registered as organic, nature is is given the space and freedom to be.
This year, though, because of the Covid-19 lockdown, the flock will likely need to stay in the lowland pasture during the summer. Hot summers parch grasslands in the Langhe region, a time Renato relocates the flock to pastures high in the Alpes Maritime range of mountains where cooler air and grassland is laden with delicious, sweet fragrant herbs. Eating fresh sword full of pesticide-free herbs gives the end products, Robiola and Toma cheeses, special flavours and textures that are rooted in these soils.
With his family of nanny goats (females, mothers and kids) and three billys (males) which are kept well away from the rest of the flock for most of the year, Renato’s goat types are carefully selected for milking and good, all-round health.
The herd consists of chamois coloured mountain goats, a pair of robust Toggenburger and some white Saanen goats. The main breed is Camosciate dell Alpe, and is currently being cross-breed with a new stud Billy goat, a Toggenburg – a hardy breed from Switzerland, famed for its agility and stamina across mountains slopes and for being generous milkers.
“With this number they have room in the stable, I can milk them all efficiently and keep a closer watch on them,” he says. Three months a year the goats are given a rest from milking.
Two cheese varieties are made at Renato’s dairy. Using cold milk he creates a Robiola and with hot milk, a 10-day aged Toma is produced and then flavoured with a variety of seasonal herbs. While Renato’s Robiola is made with just goat’s cheese, other types of this fresh white cheese from across the region are made from cow goat or ewes milk or any combination of the three (due-latte or tre-latte).
Renato’s Robiola is a delicate cheese and can be eaten after 24 hours maturing. The more robust Toma is given at least ten days to mature. A noticeable skin on the cheese takes around 15 days to be robust enough for handling.
Between 90 and 100 litres of milk are pumped twice a day from the herd. One round of Robiola soaks up two litres of milk and Renato produces around 50 Robiola a day.
I found the flavour to be salty, with an unexpected sweet after taste. Easy to eat, I spread it on nuggets of fresh bread for a plate of food for an early evening aperitivo or as an added flavour boost to stuff the extravagant courgette (zucchini) flowers for frying. This Robiola is a quick ripening goat cheese, which has a light acidic edge to it, yet one so distinct, that you can taste the variety of herbs upon which the herd feasted.
Renato also flavours his Toma with red pepper, juniper or lavender and sells his cheeses in fresh produce markets in market towns around his farm including Bra and Dogliano. “All the restaurants in and around the hilltop town La Morra include the Robiola on the cheese board, called L.Cravé (di Renato Maunero).
Another Cherasco recognized me with a de.co , a municipal name, which certifies my Robiola Cherasco (raw milk) as a local product with my registered trademark.
“My goats graze on the Cherasco soil. It’s a real product of the area,” says Renato, as he turns his attention to the evening milking and the jostling of the herd as they line up his attention.