Meet In Your Kitchen | Sheep, Peace & Tuscan Pecorino at Podere Il Casale

The light was warm and golden as we drove down the rocky alley to Podere Il Casale. It was late in the afternoon, later than expected, but that’s what happens when you enjoy Tuscany. The sun was so low that it almost touched the Tuscan hills that seem to embrace the secluded farm tucked in between Pienza and Montepulciano. I came to visit the celebrated Swiss cheese maker Ulisse Braendli, to see his sheep and goat herds, and try his Pecorino, but I found so much more. There is a silent peace laying over this farm like a blanket, it calms your mind as soon as you walk past the old terracotta-colored farmhouse. As you stand on the terrace, a breathtaking viewing platform, under fragrant pine trees protecting you like an umbrella, as you see the landscape laid out majestically in front of your eyes, soaked in dimmed shades of green and ocher, you can only smile and thank life for such unbelievable beauty.

All the people and places I visited in Tuscany for my culinary trip around the world together with Zwilling had one thing in common, they all give themselves into the hands of nature with great trust and respect. No matter what obstacles they have to fight, what problems they have to solve, they know that nature gives and takes and that there’s a balance. It’s not an easy life, but that’s also not what Ulisse was looking for when he and his partner Sandra left their home country and started a new adventure in Italy almost 30 years ago. Life is tough on this piece of land that they bought, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. They started with 3 sheep and now there are 200 of them, living an enviably good life under the Tuscan sky.

Ulisse loves Tuscany for being real, traditional, and romantically old-fashioned. Electricity only came to Podere Il Casale in 1980, before, it was a very simple, basic life. The farm is the perfect setting for his vision, to “help” nature create beautiful raw milk cheese. All the cheese, vegetables, and olive oil from the farm are organic, but that’s not an option, that’s the standard in his philosophy: “Conventional farming is strange, organic farming is normal. Wasting less of our food than the 40% that actually end up in the bin, is one of the solutions to open the doors for organic, local, and seasonal food for the broader population.” His mother planted the seed for his critically creative mind, she taught him to be open and experiment. “I blame the 60s,” says the cheese maker with a smile on his face.

The cheese at Podere Il Casale is made with just three ingredients: raw milk, rennet, and salt. Every kind of milk is different, depending on the four seasons, the weather, the soil, and the food that the sheep find on the fields. “Great food makes great milk and that makes great cheese – and every season makes a different cheese.” That’s the whole humble secret behind a Pecorino that so many people praise as one of Tuscany’s best. When the animals are outside, when they eat good food and there’s space, you have less problems with diseases, you don’t need chemicals, you can keep it under control with homeopathic methods. The animals eat barley, oats, and beans when they are in the barn, their “power food”, and hay and grass on the fields. Raw milk cheese has a strong connection to the place where it comes from, to the animals and the climate. To taste Ulisse’s sheep and goat milk cheese, young and ripe, pure and refined with white truffle or saffron, was one of the purest pleasures during my trip in Italy. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit the farm’s praised restaurant, but eating that wonderful cheese and enjoying the views of Pienza at sunset definitely made up for it.

When Ulisse stood amongst his sheep, playing with his two rowdy snow-white Maremma sheepdogs, the last rays of the low sun in our faces, I asked him what he loves the most about his life and he said: “To be free here on the farm. To do what I would like to do and not to make too many compromises – not to do something because it’s convenient.”

Many new Meet In Your Kitchen features took me to California, Japan, France, and Italy in the last few months. Thanks to Zwilling for sponsoring these features for our culinary trip around the world! Thank you, my man James Hickey, for joining me on these adventures and helping me take pictures!

 

Homemade Quark (fresh cheese)

By Ulisse Braendli – Podere Il Casale

Makes 1 pound

1.8l / 7.5 cups farm fresh milk, preferably still warm (don’t use ultra pasteurized milk!)
Cheese starter culture (amount according to the package instructions)
Liquid rennet

In a large saucepan, slowly warm up the milk until it’s about 25°C / 77°F, then stir in the cheese starter culture and take the pan off the heat. After 1 hour, add a tiny (!) drop of the rennet, cover the pot, and let it rest at room temperature for about 24 hours. The cheese is done, when the curd pulls away from the sides of the pot.

Transfer the milk mixture to a cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl. Keep the milk mixture in the strainer at room temperature for 12-24 hours to drain the whey from the cheese, or until it reaches the desired texture; the whey should be clear. Whisk until smooth and transfer to a glass container, cover, and keep in the fridge for 2-3 days.

 

What made you leave Switzerland?

I decided to start a new experience and when you start a new experience, why not change the place? It was more a about the concept. What is also better here is a shorter winter…

And you don’t like winter?

No, I like winter – it’s better for relaxing but here, winter means you have to go in the forest to cut wood. It’s one thing if you have to heat for two months, but if you have to heat for six months, it’s much more work! But it’s better here – you can make olive oil which is a great product. After the butter experience, the olive oil experience is better. It’s great. Tuscany is a nice place – it’s very real, and has an old style. In Switzerland it’s difficult. It’s just another experience. Perhaps next time I wouldn’t choose Italy.

So you never had a close connection to Tuscany? You just looked at the world and said, “Tuscany!”

No, first it was Piedmont because it’s a bit cheaper! But it’s foggy, there are too many Swiss, and the people are really a bit weird (laughing). I would not say that Tuscans are really open, but they are a little bit better! The further south you go, the better the Italians – in my opinion!

When did you arrive in Tuscany?

In 1991.

How did you find this piece of land?

By chance. We were here for the first time. We had a good relationship to the farmer. He gave us time to find the money, he helped us a lot. It was very simple.

Was it a smooth transition? Did you have a chance to grow into it?

Yes, a bit. Obviously, he had helped us more for the network and less for the cultivation. You have to imagine that these farmers are never really learning, they are just doing what they do because that’s how it’s always been done. Their father did it this way, their grandfather did it this way. It was very simple here. There was no tourism here in this valley. Pienza was sleepy so we really had a bit of this old-style life. Imagine, the farm got electricity in 1980. So, before, life was really simple. Basic. Crop-sharing families in the 60s meant that there were 20 people in four rooms. The farmers didn’t read or write – they didn’t go to school. That’s also Tuscany.

How much did you know about farming when you came here?

Nothing. I grew some vegetables at home (laughing).

Did you have a balcony (laughing)?

No, ground and soil but very small! But my mother always taught me about seasonal food, local food. I’m speaking of the 60s! She taught me about taste, that it’s not convenient to eat something that is not good, to experiment, to not always eat the same thing…

Was there ever a moment when you felt like giving up?

No, no. When I decide something, I go.

What do you love most about your life here?

To be free here on the farm. Not to be free with the society, but here on the farm. To do what I would like to do and not to make too many compromises – not to do something because it’s convenient. I do what I like to do. When I do what I like to do, I can convince people. If I have to do things that I don’t like to do, I’m not convincing. I think that’s normal! That’s why evolution or new things are really based on ideas that come from inside.

The cheese that you produce, is it organic?

Sure. Organic in our case is not really a must or even optional. It’s normal. Because who likes to eat chemicals that are used for normal farming? I would say that normal farming is strange. Organic is normal. Just to explain this better, it’s a question of when you want to be convinced of your product, you have to know what you use. The cheese is made with three products: milk, rennet, and salt. Anything more – that might be normal for processed food – is useless. So that’s why real food is organic food – not because organic is really important but because organic is kind of a brand that is about not needing more than what is necessary.

Do you believe that organic is the future?

I think more local should be the future. Local and seasonal. Organic is already too industrial in certain cases.

Do you think that local, seasonal, and organic works for cities?

Sure.

Do you believe that there is enough food if it is produced organically and locally?

Definitely, because if you are buying food with a certain concept in mind you waste less. We still waste 40% of food. That’s why all this talk recently of “saving the world with genetically modified crops,” that’s all blah blah blah.

Emiko Davies, who introduced me to you, told me that you make the best cheese in Tuscany.

Wow!! (Laughing)

What makes your cheese so special?

Our cheese is raw milk cheese. That means our cheese is connected to the animals – the sheep or the goats. What they eat is transferred into the cheese through the raw milk process, because of the bacteria. You have to know that a rainy day milk is different to a sunny day milk. Spring milk with beautiful clover and grass is amazing milk, but also winter milk is amazing because it’s colder. Summer milk is a bit boring, but it’s still great.

Why is it boring?

There is no food! Look (indicating around him), the fields are all brown! Basically, I always tell people we don’t produce cheese. We just help the great milk to become cheese. The rest is done by the bacteria. The chaos of the bacteria gives the cheese its character. The rest is hygiene, how healthy the animals are…that’s our job. So we create the fundament for a great cheese. But the rest is done by the animals, bacteria, and the environment.

I read on your website that you found truffles on your land and for a long time you didn’t even know you had truffles here! How did that happen?

Because the truffle hunter came and said, “You have white truffles in a really small corner of the forest. Could I have an exclusive deal?” I said, “Sure, I didn’t even know that there were truffles here!” Now, we do truffle hunting with him. He has all the dogs and the knowledge, because you don’t find truffles without it.

You could make a truffle cheese, or are you not interested in these kind of mixtures?

We do a truffle cheese, but a very small, limited edition because the truffle has a very fragile aroma. If you don’t use chemical aroma you really have to use a lot of truffle and that means a lot of money!

Expensive cheese!

Yes, it’s not extremely expensive but it’s not a normal cheese. A few people, for example Russians, they go crazy for truffles. When they see truffle cheese they buy it. But we are here in Italy, not in Russia.

You said that you have a closer relationship to some sheep – do you have a favorite sheep at the moment?

(Laughing) Great! But no, that would be politically incorrect!

If you had one, would you be able to find it?

I have a few that I know very well. There is for example one – now it’s difficult to find her (looking around) – her name is Castagna because she always ate chestnuts. There was a time when we had a period of chestnuts here – not chestnuts in the forest but chestnuts for feeding the pigs. We always gave her chestnuts and she would always follow you if you had chestnuts. But she’s very old – she’s about 8 or 9 years old.

Really? And she is one of them here?

Yes, but she has a bit of a different relationship to humans because she obviously remembers all these chestnuts!

Thank you, Ulisse!