They say that the people of the mountains are stubborn, and the story of the Bitto rebels certainly bears this out. The final chapter in the story came yesterday with the signing of an agreement between the Consorzio per la Salvaguardia del Bitto Storico (the consortium for safeguarding heritage Bitto), the municipality of Gerola and the Consorzio di Tutela Formaggi Valtellina Casera (the consortium for the protection of Valtellina Casera cheese).
But first let’s go back to the story’s beginning, 20 years ago, in 1994, when the producers from the historic Bitto area (the Bitto valleys) began their fight against a PDO (protected denomination of origin) that expanded production to the whole province of Sondrio. The struggle became even more bitter with changes to the specifications and the introduction of feed to the Alpine pasture diet and selected starter cultures (2005), the temporary exit of the historic producers from the PDO (2006) and the sanctions imposed on them by the Italian Agriculture Ministry (2009).
The producers never gave up, however, and along the way they found many supporters: journalists, gastronomists, associations and, above all, Slow Food, which worked with them to set up a Presidium with a very strict production protocol. Heritage Bitto must be made with the addition of 10 to 20% Orobica goat’s milk and can be produced only in mountain pastures (at altitudes between 1,400 and 2,000 meters above sea level) during the summer months. Wood must fuel the fire under the cauldron in which the milk is heated, adding complex layers to the cheese’s final aroma. Wooden utensils must be used instead of just steel or plastic, which helps to maintain and develop the milk’s natural microflora and give specific sensory characteristics to each cheese. The cheeses must be dry-salted inside their wooden molds, to encourage the development of a more delicate rind and ensure better aging.
Bitto has featured in all of Slow Food’s major events, the Earth Markets and buying groups, and the producers have taken part in exchanges with other cheesemakers from all over the world. Bitto has become an international emblem of Slow Cheese and biodiversity protection. A few years ago, the Presidium producers’ association opened a collective aging and marketing center in the Gerola Valley, in the province of Sondrio, to promote Bitto production. To raise the necessary investment, a limited company was set up to gather support and funding, including from individuals not connected to the cheesemaking world. The project has relaunched the mountain cheese, taking on the role of facilitator within the distribution chain and promotion hub for the cheese, supporting the community of producers and their pasture management activities.
Over the years, the rebels have grown stronger, creating an increasing problem for those who refused to legitimize them. This has eventually led to a change in the situation and the current agreement with the authorities.
“With some exceptions, especially in the wine sector, for years in Italy the ‘cohesion’ of a product and a place was measured based on the negation of differences,” said Paolo Ciapparelli , the Presidium’s long-standing coordinator. “In France, where the denominations of origin date back to the 19th century, the big prestigious wines have adapted the DOCs to classification systems that add value to historically excellent products, corresponding to limited areas and very high quality levels. They end up pulling larger productive areas behind them. The tens of thousands of bottles stimulate millions. The Bitto model, on a reduced scale, can work in the same way, with mutual advantages.”
According to Piero Sardo, the president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, “heroic cheesemaking” is the only way to define the work of the Bitto farmers as they make cheese up in the Alpine pastures. “Hard work, dedication, know-how, stubbornness: all characteristics that can be used to define their vision of life and their traditions, a vision which probably has few equals in the world. And now finally they are seeing their distinctiveness being officially recognized. This is a good day for other small-scale producers who can hope for a similar result. It is a good day for Slow Food, which has always supported them, respecting their decisions. But most of all, it is a magnificent day for them, for the Bitto rebels who can now look more happily to their future.”
We can think of no better example of the strength and importance of the network, of Slow Food and its Presidia.