If you LOVE a cheese in which you can savour the Abruzzi Apennine meadows and taste the herbs that were grazed to produce it then you must just once in your life at least visit Abruzzo’s organic La Porta dei Parchi agriturismo or alternatively take part in their Adopt a Pecora (sheep) scheme where you can receive their incredible Italian cheeses delivered straight to your letter box.
La Porta dei Parchi (door of the Park) is a modern agriturismo set in the Majella National Park’s Sagittario Valley and quaint medieval village of Anversa degli Abruzzi, just outside Sulmona in southern Abruzzo, Italy. It was founded in 1977 by local boy and economics graduate Nuncio Marcelli & Manuela Cozzi with the aim of bringing prosperity to an area whose population was fast migrating to nearby cities in the quest for work and wealth. His family had historically farmed the valley, a mixture of arable and vines but he turned his back on this, preferring to work with the local eco-system rather than fighting it which meant returning to the historic Abruzzo tradition of sheep farming.
Today with his girlfriend Elettra Rinaldi this lively organic co-operative has a 1300 flock of local breed ‘soppravizzano’ and Spanish Merino sheep that are tended by 6 shepherds, 15 dogs, 1 vet, 4 office staff and 2 cheese-makers (blessed are they) and that doesn’t include the staff which manage the restaurant and accommodation or old ladies that hand dye the wool as part of this traditional Italian style farm.
Without the shepherds the farm would be nothing, it is they who, come wind or shine, with their trusty Pastori Abruzzesi sheep dogs (imagine big fluffy Golden Retrievers the size of Mastiffs known as Marmma in Tuscany) that protect the flock against the wolves and bears of the Majella mountains – both of whom are quite partial to a little bit of lamb – and sadly no matter how good they are at their job the shepherds still always lose up to 30 a year to these hungry foes
It is the shepherds who influence the unique flavour of these delicious organic pecorino and ricotta type cheeses by determining how long each flock spends in each meadow containing mint, oregano, fennel and juniper to name a few. Incidentally, it is these shepherds alongside Nuncio who were invited and travelled to Kabul, Afghanistan, to help restore pastoral traditions that have been forgotten indirectly via the country’s decades of war, particularly in the making of a durable, long-lasting cheese.
Their Abruzzo sheep cheeses are made year round outside the months of July through to September. We tried their classic pecorino – a sweet nutty cheese with a brown bran skin without any of the saltiness of some of its regional brothers. What we were completely bowled over by was their ‘infused’ smoked ricottas – we particularly liked the peperoncino (chilli), the onion and also the chive and brought back a collection to share with friends who were all a little surprised at these delicious examples of ricotta, sadly these don’t ever appear either in the supermarkets nor even Farmers Markets, hey maybe that can be our next job as importers! The best thing about all these cheeses is that no matter how moreish they seem, their silky richness combats you wolfing down the whole cheese, less is definitely more!
You can buy the little ricottas online individually for no more than 6 euros plus postage along with their lamb salami and other products such as honey, or alternatively you can take a look at their Adopt a Sheep Scheme. This is based on the Abruzzo tradition of local villagers paying the local shepherd to ‘mind their sheep’ in exchange for ready cash, making the most of the shepherds’ grazing knowledge and their dogs’ protection to ensure they got the most from their sheep. You in affect can choose to do the same ensuring your cheese is really organic, delicious and helping sustain traditional lifestyles that don’t break the environment.
An example of what you get for 190 euros in addition to your Adoption certificate is:
- 3 kg pecorino cheese
- 1 kg of juniper-smoked ricotta
- 1 kg of salamelle di tratturo (sheep-salami)
- 1 pair of trekking socks
and you can choose whether you’d like it delivered ready for Christmas to share with your family or as a pick me up mid-year; there are other options too that include olive oil. By becoming part of the Adopt a Pecora scheme you are entitled to a 10-20% discount on your accommodation & food if you stay there as part of your Italian holiday – great value! If you’d rather be in-town the agriturismo can arrange for you to stay with a local family rather like the Cuban Casa Particular scheme.
If you can’t spend the night we can recommend driving by for a cheese-tasting experience and for lunch. We had lunch there with fantastic company provided by the very charming & helpful resident veterinary Fabio lo Foco, and Giuseppe, one of the Porta dei Parchi employees. Giuseppe’s about 55, with the most enormous plate like hands and had sadly just been bitten by a horsefly. Food consisted of the great cheeses & salamelle di tratturo served with fruit relish, tasty primo pasta with a lamb based ragu and then grilled lamb. Just for reference don’t expect the texture of the lamb to be anything like the soft soggy stuff you get wrapped in plastic, you are eating hardy mountain sheep/mutton! I am going to finish on some [possibly mis]quotes from Giuseppe as they make a lot of sense!
“It takes more time to arrange them than go on one and enjoy them”
“The death of the Italian lifestyle will be through the fashionable short-term thinking and adoption of the American lifestyle.”
“Nobody plans, nobody makes the time, nobody notices the time of the year so how can one know what produce comes from the season of the day to cook with.”
Watch a short 3-minute documentary about La Porta dei Parchi and their recent visit to Afghanistan, it is in Italian but you will see the sheep, Nuncio and the stunning countryside of the Sagittario Valley too.
Contact Details for Porta dei Parchi:
Official Website: www.portadeiparchi.it
Address: Porta dei Parchi, Cooperativa Agrituristica A.S.C.A.
P.zza Roma 11/a 67030
Anversa degli Abruzzi
Tel.+39 086449492 Fax +39 086449595
The Guardian, in the latest of their remarkably regular series of articles on Abruzzo: For a real Italian getaway, follow the herd