In the afternoon after our day of making preserves with Marzia, we took a field trip to nearby Sogliano al Rubicone, a small hill town on the southern edge of Romagna. As we arrived at our destination, we had a marvelous view of nearby San Marino, the tiny republic contained wholly within the nation of Italy.
Vanessa told us that, due to being a papal state for centuries, there was, and remains, strong anti-clerical sentiment in the region. In Sogliano, residents made a cheese from sheep's milk, but in an effort to conceal anything they didn't want stolen or taxed, they began to carve pits in the rock under their homes.
Sogliano is perched on a promontory of porous tufa, or limestone. As locals packed their fresh pecorino into these pits, a few things happened. First, the pressure of the weight of all the cheese would malform the wheels, resulting in nobby, irregular hunks. But after aging in the pits for a few months, they also noticed that the flavor of the cheese had changed. And so this sharp pecorino became a local delicacy, formaggio di fossa -- pit cheese.
At Fosse Brandinelli, owner Marino took us, three at a time, up a James Bond-esque oval elevator carved into the cliff face. Some years ago, the Brandinellis purchased the home the next level up. When they went to clear out the basement, they discovered that they were the proud owners of several of these traditional pits, that had been filled up with earth.
Not every home in Sogliano has these pits, so they knew they had something special. After clearing the pits out, they were faced with a new destiny: To become artisan cheese makers.
After showing us around the cellar and the pits (you can see some photos on their site), and explaining the process of lining the pits with hay and packing the cheeses in, we settled in for a tasting.
Formaggio di fossa is firm, almost chalky, with a sharpness typical of sheep's milk cheeses. The seasoning from the tufa pits gives it even more piquancy, making it almost spicy. It's delicious, especially when paired with sweet and acidic things, like the savor we had made earlier in the day.
Luckily, you can bring any cheese aged more than 60 days into the US; formaggio di fossa is aged up to 180 days. So I happily brought home a 2.2 kg wheel.
Brandinelli also makes a grana-style cow's milk cheese, similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano. It, too, was delicious, but we were headed to Parma the next day to see Parmigiano production, and I knew I'd end up taking home a chunk of that.