SUS-CHAIN: Case Studies

Italy: Pecorino di Pistoia – raw milk sheep cheese from the Pistoia mountains

In the mountainous region of Pistoia province in the north of Tuscany, shepherds still breed a local sheep race (Massese sheep) which has a dual output, milk and meat, and is particularly suitable for extensive breeding, with high altitude grazing during spring and summer. They produce a local raw milk cheese at various stages of ripening: the soft cheese (7-20 days of maturing), the ‘abbuciato’ (at least 35 days of maturing) and the ‘asserbo’ (from 2-3 months up to 1 year of maturing). All the kinds of cheese have a round shape and a white paste. The colour of the rind changes from yellow to dark brown according to the length of the maturing period.

Over the last years, the shepherds had to face the increasing constraints posed by the health authorities, in order to comply with the European hygienic rules. At the same time, in Italy, the attention on food quality was developing, associated to the origin of the product, raw material use and artisan process, as shown by the Slow food movement success. Through the Ark of Taste project, set up in 1996, the Slow food association started an activity aimed at saving typical and traditional products, which are bound to disappear because of industrial standardisation, environmental degradation and hyper hygienist regulations. The project operational units are the presidia, through which the association provides technical and promotion support to the initiatives aimed at saving specific products. The initiative of valorisation of raw sheep milk cheese in Pistoia mountains was started in 2000 by the Director of the Pistoia A.P.A. (Associazone Provinciale Allevatori) and by the local Slow food representative. The objectives which these actors align with were the following:
a) adapting traditional production techniques,
b) enlarging the shepherds’ commercial circuit (mainly direct selling),
c) linking product valorisation to local development.

In 2001, by writing a code of practices the Director of A.P.A. succeeded in defining technical arrangements allowing the shepherds to use raw milk. This technical step resulted in the creation of a Slow Food Presidium, with the financial support of various institutions, such as the Chamber of Commerce. Later on, the Director of A.P.A. promoted the creation of the ‘Consortium of Pistoia Mountains and Valleys’, whose members are shepherds. The shepherds who entered the consortium are supported in marketing activities. Through that they can participate in local fairs as well as in Slow Food events (about 50 fairs per year). By distributing the cheese in restaurants and in agri-tourism units and by developing national and international commercial circuits it was possible to give continuity to the traditional direct selling.

This case-study presents various similarities with the Swiss case study ‘Rye bread of Valais’: survival of a traditional product in a mountainous area, problematisation by external actors with a low involvement of the producers at the beginning of the initiative, necessity to aligning techniques to build a common code of practices, answering to a consumer demand outside the region pushed by an external organisation (‘Slow Food’ in Italy, the ‘association for the promotion of the PDO-PGI products’ in Switzerland), enlarging commercial circuits to connect to national markets. The Italian initiative - with the support of the Slow Food association - seems to be very efficient concerning promotion aspects, to develop notoriety and symbolic capital outside of the region.

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