Butirro is an ancient dairy product, composed of an outer layer of pasta filata (pulled curd) around an inner filling of soft butter. Although it is now available and produced across almost all of southern Italy, it’s likely region of origin is Calabria, where the most traditional processing methods are still used. Usually consumed after a medium maturation period, the cheese is composed of an outer layer of glossy solid cheese made from raw Podolica cow’s milk (a common cattle breed in southern Italy) and a heart of butter, which is fully enclosed and maintains an unadulterated flavor and aroma until the moment of consumption.?Immediately following milking, the milk is filtered and heated to 36-38°C. Kid rennet is added to start the coagulation and as soon as the curd reaches an optimal state it is broken up into small rice-sized pieces and then stirred for a few minutes. After being left for around an hour to settle to the bottom, the curds are compacted again by hand, removed from the whey and placed onto wooden tables covered in linen cloths. The curd is rested for a variable period of time – dependent on the ambient room temperature, but never exceeding three days – in order to reach the right level of acidity and compactness to allow for the ‘pulling’ process. At this point, the curd is cut and dipped in almost boiling water to carry out the manual pulling of the curds. After the curd is molded around a knob of butter into its final shape, it is immediately immersed in cold water to reduce the chance of altering the butter’s flavor, which is very sensitive to heat. The Butirri are then tied together in pairs, hung on wooden posts and left to mature for a relatively brief period.?As in the past, the butter is made using low temperature centrifuge techniques. Although the methods vary, they are all much more time consuming that most modern processes and produce butter with higher taste qualities and nutritional values.? Testimonies of this cheese arrive from Greek and Roman sources, including Pliny, who praised the softness and delicacy of the interior. The widespread availability of the cheese across the regions of southern Italy eventuated in a similar to way to that of other famous Calabrian dairy products, like Caciocavallo or Provola Silana. The reasons are quite simple, tied both to the high demand for these products (various documents certify the shipment of Caciocavallo Silano to the kitchens of the high Roman Curia in medieval times), and because Sila was the midpoint of the region and a long journey for the large transhumance herds. On the one hand, this slowed down significantly a rapid socio-economic development as was occurring on the rest of the peninsular, and on the other hand it allowed the tapping of a foundation of traditions and customs that were lost for centuries elsewhere, including those relevant to dairy traditions.Special mention must be made of Butirro, produced in the municipality of Carlopoli. Carlopoli is a small mountain town in the province of Catanzaro, from which extends the Sila, a vast plateau that is the green heart of our region. Based in ancient traditions, the dairy production of this small town has deserved, and continues to deserve today, a very notable standing in the Presilia Catanzarese. It is no coincidence that a large number of the dairy farms around Calabria were founded by people originally from Carlopoli. The main reason is tied to its strategic geographical position and to its pastoralist traditions. Carlopoli’s position has played a determining role, with the summer pastures of the Sila stretching out behind the town and the winter valleys of Calabria below it. The feudal nobility and landowners of the past, owners of herds and boundless lands, customarily choose foremen from Carlopoli to follow their animals and manage the cheesemaking.?Returning to the story of Butirro, we can draw another clue about its ancient origins, from the fact that this product was considered a versatile and natural receptacle to conserve a very precious food like butter. From the dawn of human history, until the years immediately preceding the spread of modern refrigeration techniques, human activity seems wholly concentrated on food conservation as well as food production. When cultural conditions or materials for effective conservation where not sound, certain foods simply weren’t made, or were made in very small quantities.?Regarding the production of butter, in the past a churn was used: a wooden recipient that held the cream while it was beaten for around two hours until butter was obtained. Today the churn has been supplanted by modern steel machinery for electric-centrifugation. Traditional production has decreased markedly due to laws regarding the processing of fresh milk that require control systems and investments that are beyond the means of small-scale farmers, and because European Union policies on milk quotas unfortunately limit access to fresh local dairy products. Furthermore, the number of Podolica cattle head raised in Calabria – the local breeds which supplies the milk – has decreased significantly due to the breed’s low milk yield and adaption to open pastures and vast areas to move around, making it ill-suited for intensive modern farming systems.
Image: © Marco del Comune & Oliver Migliore