Of Cheese and Culture

At the Soru brothers’ dairy, Urbino’s traditional Casciotta cheese mixes with memories of Sardinia.

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Their warm wide smiles would have been enough to invite us in. But as the Soru brothers open the screened door of their farm and dairy, they also offer a bottle of wine, a loaf of cheese, and a bag of flatbread.

The flatbread is important to the snack—and to the brothers.

Sebastiano playing with dog, Donovan.

Sebastiano playing with dog, Donovan.

We use the bread to carry the Soru’s soft, savory, cheeses into our mouths. The brothers explain that the flakey sheets, known as Pane Carasau, have been eaten since ancient times in Sardinia, their homeland. Shepherds would carry the bread as they searched for pastures because it stayed fresh during long journeys away from home. Like those wanderers, Giovanni, 56, and Sebastiano, 53, keep the bread with them to maintain a connection with their far-away roots.

But here in their adopted home in the Marche, the Soru brothers work to perfect cheeses that are characteristic not of Sardinia, but of Urbino. Giovanni and Sebastiano have owned and operated this organic farm and dairy since 1989. Located in Sassocorvaro, the 120-acre operation is home to 150 sheep, a dozen wandering cats, and a family of seven dogs. Its specialty is the local delicacy, Casciotta.

Casciotta d’Urbino is one of Italy’s oldest, most celebrated cheeses. Its popularity dates back to the 1500s, when Michelangelo bought a farm in Urbino to make sure he would always have the cheese readily available. In 1982, Casciotta d’Urbino was granted Protected Designations of Origin (PDO) recognition, or in Italian, Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) from the European Union.

Salting their Casciotta cheese.

Brothers, Sebastiano (left) and Giovanni (right) salting their Casciotta cheese.

With this government stamp comes strict regulations. The cheese must be prepared, processed, and produced in the Marche region, between the provinces of Pesaro and Urbino, using traditional methods and ingredients. The dimensions and appearance of a “loaf” are carefully defined as cylindrical, flat, and about one kilogram. The recipe demands 70 percent sheep’s milk and 30 percent cow’s milk.

What makes their business special? “Our fresh milk, our passion, our experience,” Giovanni explains with a characteristic Soru smile. “We try to give the people what they want. We don’t just do what we want to do.”

Casciotta d’Urbino is nothing like the cheeses from home, according to the brothers. While Urbino is fond of sweeter cheeses, the cheeses of Sardinia have more salt, more flavors, and more variety, they say. Some Sardinian cheese can take more than three months to make, as opposed to 20 days for Casciotta.

It’s just an innate talent. Passion for cheese is in our blood.

“It’s just an innate talent” says Sebastiano. “Passion for cheese is in our blood.” Cheese is also in their name. He explains that “Soru” means “whey,” the liquid that remains around the formation of curds during the process of cheese making.

In fact, the Soru brothers come from a long line of cheese makers. “In Sardinia you have two options. You can either work as a shepherd or as a farmer,” says Giovanni with a laugh. With more than three million sheep and 20,000 sheep farms, Sardinia supplies Italy with nearly half of its sheep’s milk. With so many established farms, the brothers decided they had to move away.

Milking

Brothers, Sebastiano and Giovanni milking their sheep.

They had hoped to go to Australia. But at ages 17 and 20, as Giovanni likes to say, “destiny” brought the boys to Urbino instead, where they had many relatives to welcome them to the area. Although they’ve been in the Urbino area for 36 years, they miss home. “I have a wonderful life here, but still…” says Giovanni wistfully. “I miss the language and the culture.”

Hints of Sardinian culture are ever present at the Soru farm. Sebastiano howls at the dog, and then laughs. “I’m speaking to them in Sardinian,” he explains. “They understand it best because our dialect has specific, profound sounds that the sheep and dogs understand.”

Come September, when the sheep are no longer needed for milk, the brothers will cook a few to serve, a common practice in Sardinia that is not typical for Urbino.

What about their favorite cheese? “Casu Marzu,” replies Sebastiano, grinning. This translates roughly to “rotten cheese,” and he describes it as “made with flies and larva.”

To our relief, we are not offered any Casu Marzu, despite the brothers’ insistence that it is “actually really good.” It surprises no one when they explain that this preferred treat is a specialty not of Urbino, but Sardinia.

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About Stephanie Gross

Italy was just as beautiful as I had imagined, but this course exceeded all of my expectations. I came to Urbino not knowing what any of the buttons did on my simple point-and-shoot camera, and in four weeks that went by too quickly, I became comfortable working with DSLRs, iMovie, and using the different settings on my camera proficiently. The students, teachers, and interpreters all worked so well together, from helping each other come up with new ideas for stories to giving advice on the best gelato flavors, this experience has been unforgettable.