There's traditional cheese-making, and then there's traditional cheese-making. For centuries, near-wild cows in the Puglia region of southern Italy have been herded back and forth over long, winding trails, where they feed on aromatic herbs, giving their milk—and then their cheese, known as caciocavallo podolico—an absolutely unique flavor.
Now, these flavors are more available than ever. I recently spoke with Especially Puglia founder Michele Iadarola about his Adopt a Cow program, through which you can sponsor a cow and get your own round of caciacavallo during its yearly production season. "My philosophy, my mission," Michele told me, "is to introduce this special food that Americans are not very familiar with."
The Podolica cow, according to lore, is the most direct descendant of Europe's first cows, migrating down into the boot of Italy from far-distant Eastern Europe millennia ago. This might explain why it's not like other cows—even free-range ones. Podolicas wander far and wide, gently guided by cowherds down paths called tratturi, or "sheep tracks," from the mountains down to the sea. "You see it since you're a kid—cows just wandering around," Michele explained to me. "I loved to see that, it's something you usually don't see anywhere else."
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Because of all their wandering, the Podolicas are unusually lean. This means they produce less milk than most cows, but that the milk they do produce preserves the flavors of untamed forests and grasslands. This is why they're so alluring as a source of cheese—the end product holds a hint of everything they graze upon. "You can taste and feel all the herbs when you eat the cheese," says Michele.
The most interesting thing about these cows, though, is how they're milked. When calves are born, farmers keep them back at the family farm, while still letting the grazing cows roam free. Every morning, each mother will invariably return to milk their calf; while the baby cow is at one side of the udder, the farmer extracts milk from the other. It's a tradition that's been alive for centuries, and Michele and the folks at Especially Puglia hope to keep it alive.
Once the milk is, well, milked, a long and fascinating process begins. The milk is acidified and heated to produce curds and whey. The curds are then heated and stretched, imbuing the eventual product with its unique crumbly texture, after which they're shaped by hand into the cheese's signature shape—like a pear or gourd—then chilled and brined.
The aging process lends the caciocavallo (Italian for "cheese on horseback") its quirky name. Rounds of cheese are bound in pairs with rope, then hung over a wooden pole. At the beginning of the process, these poles are kept in a room where branches of olive trees are burned all day long. Later, they're placed in humid cellars to mature for three months or more.
The resulting cheese is so rich that it can more than hold its own on any cheeseboard. Michele recommends balancing it out with some honey or pairing it with a nice red wine. No matter how you choose to eat it, though, you're tasting a miles- and months-long journey in every bite.