When I was producing and hosting Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert, I had the good fortune to do many segments on cheese.
I did stories on Asiago and Grana Padano in Italy, Gruyere, Appenzeller, and Ementaler in Switzerland, Cheddar in Ontario, Canada, and goat cheese in Sonoma, Calif., just to name a few.
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The cheeses were all delicious, the stories varied and interesting, and the process fascinating. What’s more, I love cheese, so I was in heaven.
Now that the production of Culinary Travels has ended, or at least is in limbo, the opportunities to witness the cheese-making process first-hand, taste the cheeses in their natural environment, and tell the stories of the cheese, the region and the people who produce them have become fewer and farther in between.
In fact, I thought I’d might have made my last visit to a cheese producer — at least as a reporter. Turns out, I was wrong thanks to an unexpected email and a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Montepulciano in Tuscany region of Italy.
So, you might have read my blogs on Montepulciano and my participation in the judging of “A Tavola con Il Nobile,” an unbelievable food and wing pairing contest held within the walls of the ancient city of Montepulciano.
Well, it turns out there was more than just sampling eight duck recipes and a couple dozen Vino Nobile de Montepulciano on the docket. There was also a visit to the Cugusi property, home of perhaps the best Pecorino producer in Tuscany.
Cugusi produces some 16 versions of Pecorino from their family estate, Silvana Cugusi and her sister, Giovanna, are the cheese makers of the family. Their family has been making cheese for generations, starting on their native Sardinia, then moving to Tuscany to establish the company in 1962.
The Cugusi estate is located in the beautiful hills outside the towns of Montepulciano and Pienza. The dairy sits on 190 acres of land covered with olive groves, vineyards and pastures.
A thousand sheep dot the landscape — sheep that feed on the grass and herbs native to the region and the estate. The process for making the Cugusi Pecorino cheeses couldn't be more natural, nor could the setting be more bucolic.
I had the honor of tasting many of the Cugusi’s Pecorino offerings with Silvana Cugusi, who was nine months old when her family moved to Tuscany. To say they were impressive is a massive understatement.
To the uninitiated, Pecorino cheese is the name given to all Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk. Pecorino is taking from the word, Pecora, meaning sheep.
Pecorino is made on the island of Sardinia, as well as in the states of Lazio and Tuscany. I’ve only had the Tuscan versions, so I can’t comment on the taste, aroma, and quality of other Pecorinos. But of the Tuscan versions I’ve sampled, Cugusi’s are far superior.
Cugusi lists it cheeses under the following categories: Classics, Spicy, Fermented, and Soft. I tried cheese from all categories — five in all, one better than the next.
The first cheese I sampled was fresca. Just two weeks old, this cheese was soft, wonderfully fresh, and sweet-not like sugar sweet, but sumptuous. Spread on some Italian bread and served with some Tuscan dried and cured meats you’d have a meal in itself.
Number two was the Cugusi semi-ripe, three months old and covered in a tomato sauce. The Cugusi’s calls this offering Pecorino Rosso, and it’s the most popular of their cheeses. I can see why. It’s the perfect age with more complexity than the fresca, but still with plenty of freshness.
The gran riserva was next. Aged a year and a half, this Pecorino was much fuller-bodied and drier yet still with moisture. This might have been my favorite of the bunch, the perfect combination of complexity and approachability.
The fourth cheese was a combination of Pecorino and Gorgonzola. I don’t care much for Gorgonzola, so it’s not surprising that this was my least favorite of the morning.
Finally, the fifth — an herb-infused version with a rind rubbed with dried walnut leaves. The driest and most complex of the group, this wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was a home run with me.
Were they available in the U.S., Cugusi’s Pecorino would be my “go to” cheese, and I would have multiple versions on hand at all times. Unfortunately, Cugusi only ships within Italy.
Then again, that means you have to visit to purchase, and that’s not a bad way to go at all.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.