It can be hard to pick a favorite cheese. When in France, Camembert rules. In England, I can’t live without aged cheddar. In Portugal it’s all about the Azeitão. But in Tuscany, Pecorino di Pienza is more than just my cheese du jour– it leaves me craving its umami goodness long after I’ve left the Italian border. Pecorino di Pienza cheese is one of my favorite souvenirs from Italy.
What is it about Pecorino di Pienza that makes it so tasty and addictive?
I could get all foodie on you and describe the contrast of flavors and textures– soft but crumbly, smooth but granular, mild yet tannic– but when I tried to do that at my local cheese emporium back home, the cheesemonger laughed at me and told me, “oh sometimes we remember things differently when we are on vacation.” He then handed me a sliver of marzolino from another region of Italy, which he promised was “similar.”
It was not. But being the cheese glutton that I am, I still walked out with half a pound.
Back home, a little further research revealed that Pecorino di Pienza’s distinctness was not a figment of my wistful imagination after all, but was based on the uniqueness of the milk used in production.
What makes the milk so special? While American sheep may graze on ordinary field grass, the ewes of the Crete Senesi region are the gourmands of the sheep world, feasting on local flora with exotic names like wormwood, juniper, broom and burnet, which in turn infuses their milk with delicate herbal aromas.
You would think competitive cheesemongers everywhere would be lining up to offer this rare cheese. A little more probing of my local cheesemonger revealed the real reason why this cheese was not in his, or any other local store. While aged Pecorino di Pienza is available year-round, the production of the younger, “fresco” pecorino peaks in April/May. This limited window of availability, combined with the delicate composition of the cheese makes it un-importable.
I declared a silent victory as the cheesemonger grudgingly admitted that you can really only buy cheese like this in season, and only a short distance from the producing farm. He even added that maybe it’s better this way.
While Pecorino di Pienza is scarce elsewhere, in Pienza, you can walk into any local cheese shop and choose from a variety of producers. But why bother with the middleman when you can visit a local producer and buy directly off the farm. Our Italian hosts recommended Bagnolo, a family run farm in the Pienza hills.
Cheese Shopping in Tuscany
As you drive up to the Bagnolo farm, you can see how the sheep spend their days on the surrounding hills, lazing about in the Tuscan sunshine, surrounded by their guards, the Maremma sheep dog (Cane da pastore Maremmano-Abruzzese), an ancient Italian breed.
Although the dogs are descended from the equivalent of canine royalty, they still looked like giant muppets in need of a good snuggle.
As you drive up to the farm you might think you made a wrong turn. That’s why we’re including this photo for identification purposes. The cheese facilities are to the left of the house, past the carport.
On the farm, you might get lucky and catch the cheese production in full swing.
One of the Bagnolo brothers will likely be assisting you in selecting your favorite.
Have you ever bought cheese right from a farm in Tuscany? Share your favorite spots in the comments below!
Pecorino di Pienza Bagnolo
Don’t get lost like we did, gps it ahead of time.
The farm is located 3 km from Pienza, on the provincial road SP71. To get there from Pienza you can take the SS146 road towards San Quirico d’Orcia. In less than a mile take the SP71 provincial road and follow the signs for Sant’Anna in Camprena and Castelmuzio. In about 2 kilometers, you will see the farm’s sign on the left.
All photos by Souvenir Finder copyright 2013 except as indicated above.