From the poor role of polenta-garnish during our grandparents' meals, Ticino's cheese has become a delicacy served in luxurious restaurants with audacious garnishes like honey, candied fruit condiments, sweet or straw wines. Its secret lies in the inseparable relationship to the land, such as the mountains, the Alpine pastures, the smells of the herbs and flowers in the fields. To discover this link we recommend an itinerary in the footsteps of the mountain cheeses that can be purchased, as well as fresh cow and goat cheese, at the Caseificio del Gottardo (dairy) in Airolo.
The cheese, in the same way as the Ticino wine, has transformed itself in the past few decades attaining a very high quality bracket: from a homemade aliment to a modern product, though still handcrafted. A quality that is obtained also thanks to the people that spend the summer in the pastures. Although more comfortable and better serviced than in the past, these are still places where, poetry aside, the work remains laborious and far from easy. Great professionalism and respect for tradition are the essential elements that are at the base of the quality and success of the cheeses produced in Ticino.
Mountain pasture cheese
Cheese from the mountain pasture is guaranteed by a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). It has an important tradition component and its tasting must be done with respect and awareness: in each bite there are stories of pains, of risks, of solitude as well as vast pristine spaces, gestures passed on for generations and knowledge that has thankfully not been lost. The producers have maintained a balance between the need to be up-to-date with the times, to comply with new legislations in the sector, to innovate, but equally as important, to perpetuate an activity that links humankind's labor to nature and the environment.
There are currently about forty PDO mountain pastures located, for the most part, in Northern Ticino. Some are extremely well known for the excellence of their products. The first is the Piora, selected and sought after despite the high price. Of similar quality are other cheeses from the Leventina Valley, such as the Sorescia, Pontino and Pesciüm; the Valmaggia (from the Maggia Valley) and the Fümegna (Verzasca Valley). A specialty that probably finds its roots in a distant past is the formaggio della paglia (literally “cheese of hay”) produced in the Maggia Valley. A softer sort, it is called this way because it used to be wrapped in hay during the aging process.
The formaggio ubriaco (drunk cheese) is instead a recent discovery, at least in Ticino: it's a semi-hard cow milk cheese sharpened in the vinacce (leftover from the grape pressing process).
Soft goat cheese
In the past few years, a renewed fortune has invested in soft cheeses, mostly from goat's milk: typical, those from the Muggio Valley are also flavoured with herbs or pepper (sought after and very much appreciated the Zincarlin), as well as the Robiola (soft-ripened cheese), fresh or aged and the Ricotta.
If you have more time…
Itinerary: Road of the Pastures (4h, see map)
Of great interest and satisfaction, this is a suggestion that is easy and accessible to all. The Strada degli alpi (Road of the pastures) of the Bedretto Valley is not a steep trail, as the name seems to imply, but a comfortable course that unravels from pasture to pasture, along a good part of the valley, at about 1,700-1,800 m elevation. The strain in altitude – from 1,141 meters in Airolo to 1,745 in Pesciüm, where the walk starts – is undertaken by the cableway that takes you to high elevation in a few minutes and that is easily accessible by car from Airolo.
Pesciüm, a well-known ski resort, is the departure point of this itinerary (well signposted and also accessible with a mountain bike). It goes through meadows and shrubs at the limits of the larch forest for 14 km (an easy 4-hour walk). Accompanying the visitor are some informational panels in four languages.
The first mountain pasture you will come across is the Pesciüm, followed by Ruinò. These mountainous lands are almost all owned by the Patriziati, bodies that reunite people from the same community and own property such as land and forests. The herdsmen, united in a corporation, manage the pasture collectively, while the cheese production is divided at the end of the season in proportion to the heads of livestock brought to the pasture and the milk they've produced.
Whoever follows the road of the mountain pastures from July to August has the possibility to observe the herdsmen's, shepherd's and dairymaid's everyday life with the cows in the pasture, the stables and the little dairies. The cheese isn't usually sold on site but can be purchased in Airolo at the Caseificio del Gottardo (Gotthard Dairy).
Other pastures along the course are: Cristallina, Stabiello, Folcra (at the highest elevation: 1,900 meters) and Valleggia. From these small pastures with a rich Alpine flora and with pleasantly smelling grass, cheeses with exceptional flavors are born. They are sold from four/six months' of aging up to twelve and more. Also produced here is the precious and sought-after butter.
The trail descends to the village of Ronco (1,480 meters) from where you may return to Airolo with the bus that stops at the cableway parking lot. A day in this region cannot be considered finished without a stop at the Gottardo Dairy that is also a restaurant (with cheese specialties and not only that), the place of production of excellent cheeses, a store where you can find the best products of Ticino's gastronomy and the Alpine Museum. It is located exactly next to the cableway departure station.