Niko Romito, the chef of three Michelin star restaurant Reale in Castel di Sangro is driving us to the heart of the national park of Abruzzo to a formidable shepherd and cheese maker Gregorio Rotolo. It is a cold brisk morning in December just before Christmas when we stop to allow a pack of at least 50 deer to cross the road a few kilometres away from the idyllic mountain top village of Scanno.
On the outskirts of this village, 5 kilometres away is the agritourism of Gregorio Rotolo, a cheese maker that is often considered a legend in this region. Gregorio makes cheese which he sells to the whole of Italy and outside but also serves visitors to the region traditional food and of course his products.
He has been making unique award winning cheeses apart from other products such as sheep prosciutto since he was 12 years old. His grandfather was a shepherd. He is passionate about his terroir, his animals and his cheeses. “I am radical. I add nothing to the milk. Some defects can arise in the cheese because the milk is not pasteurised,” he tells us.
“I work with raw milk so that I can conserve all the nutritional aspects of the milk. If we heat the milk to pasteurise it, we lose the micro organisms that make the milk a living food. We would lose all the richness and the natural qualities of the milk. It would be impossible to create a cheese which has the taste of the richness of the grass of these mountains. This is essential for the cheese.”
Gregorio Rotolo makes around 15 different cheeses including ricotta, the Caciocavallo Barricato (a cheese that is aged in oak barrels) and the Ricotta Scorza Nera, different types of Pecorino as well as the award winning Gregoriano-Pecorino, a soft cheese that reminds you more of Camembert than of Pecorino.
“We are lucky to have someone like Gregorio Rotolo in the region. He and his products are unique,” Niko Romito said. And he is right of course because you can feel the passion and pride whenever Gregorio is speaking about his sheep, his cheeses or showing us the end results of his work. Needless to say, the cheeses find their way to Reale and to many of Italy’s top restaurants.
We are going to eat at the agritourism and given its a Monday in the middle of December it is not busy so Gregorio has all the time to sit with us and describe his work and the cheeses we are going to taste. Although Scanno is around 45 minutes away from Casadonna in Castel Di Sangro by car, Niko said that this is probably the place he visits most often to eat during the year. At Casadonna, they also have two dogs Pane e Olio (Bread and Oil) which were given to them by Gregorio.
The creations made by Gregorio have a unique story that is very much based on the territory with a style of cheese making that is more common in the North rather than the south of Italy.
What makes the cheese special according to Gregorio is the terroir and the food that the animals eat. It is this, Gregorio said, that gives the cheese its unique taste. The animals eat raw materials like hay, alfalfa, straw and wild pea, all of which can be found in the territory.
He recounts the story, with a sense of sadness, about the time when 700 sheep of his nearly 2,000 sheep died. “It is impossible to replace them. It is not a question of money but rather because the sheep are used to living in this altitude, eating what the territory has to offer. Bringing sheep from elsewhere or different types of sheep would not be the same,” he said.
Everyone of Gregorio’s creations presents more than just flavour. Each one has a story from the Pecorino Brigantaccio to his famous trittico, a cheese made with cow, goat and sheep milk with its distinct qualities.
His bio agritourism ,which he operates together with his sister and a few nephews and nieces, is unique. Just 5 kilometres from the picturesque village of Scanno which has less than 2,000 inhabitants most of whom are over the age of 50, his is the only agricultural venture in the whole region. While the setting is magical as you can see from the photos, winters are bleak and difficult which makes living here very hard but Gregorio wouldn’t change this for anything. It is when he is walking with his distinct red wool hat that he gets his ideas, his inspirations to create new things. Today, he has around 1,700 sheep, 150 goats, 40 cows, 10 pigs and at least 40 dogs.
Apart from making cheese and cold cuts like the sheep prosciutto he also makes rooms available and operates a restaurant serving cheese as well home made food such as the splendid ravioli di ricotta which we saw being made in front of our own eyes.
Just like Niko Romito is putting his region on the world map through his fine dining restaurant and cooking school, Gregorio Rotolo is setting the bar and showing what can be achieved in the mountains of Abruzzo. You have to visit to see for yourself.