Raschera d'Alpeggio is an artisanal cheese that is produced only in the Monregalesi Valleys. This traditional dairy product has been inducted into the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity's Ark of Taste catalog of artisanal foods that are at risk of extinction within a few generations. From time immemorial, Raschera cheese has always been an important part of the economy, culture and traditions of the people who live in this bucolic mountain community.
Located in the southernmost part of Piemonte, the Monregalesi Valleys lie just north of the Maritime Alps and the French border. The sunny Riviera coast is only fifty kilometers to the south and its warm breezes influence the climate in these alpine valleys, allowing grasses and wildflowers to flourish at elevations much higher than usual for a mountain region. For centuries, farmers in the Monregalesi Valleys have been taking part in an annual migration of cattle called the transumanza. Each June, livestock are herded from farmland in the lower valleys to graze the lush upland pastures surrounding Lake Raschera on the slopes of Mount Mongioie (alt. 2,630 mt.).
In the town of Roccaforte Mondovì, a fresco painted in the late fifteenth-century depicts a scene from the transumanza in the Monregalesi Valleys. On the walls of a rural farmstead, an artist named Giovanni Mazzucco captured the everyday lives of the Carthusian monks who lived and worked there during the winter months. Mazzucco’s colorful fresco shows the monks going about their daily chores of herding animals and making cheese. Each summer, the monks herded their cattle from the farmstead in Roccaforte to the upland pastures of their order’s Charterhouse near the town of Pamparato. The monks used the milk from the summer grazing to produce a cow’s-milk cheese that is typical of the Monregalesi Valleys.
Toma di montagna, or mountain cheese, is found throughout the Mondovì area but a particular toma produced in the vicinity of Lake Raschera has always been prized for its special flavor. The first written account of this cheese comes from the municipal archives of Pamparato. A document from a 15th century landlord states that he will accept rental payment in the form of “...that good cheese they make way up there in the pastures of Raschera”. Over time, the name Raschera became synonymous with the cheese produced during the summer months in the high pastures of the Monregalesi Valleys.
The method of making Raschera cheese has not changed over the centuries. Raw milk from a Piemontese breed cow is collected from two consecutive milkings. The milk is heated to 30 degrees Celsius in a wooden container called a gerla and then covered to rest for half an hour. The resulting curd is first cut into pieces with a spatula called a spanuira, then agitated vigorously for five minutes with the top branch of a fir tree called a sbatarela. The broken curd is then placed into a hemp cloth called a curuira and left to drain. The dense curd is placed into a round wooden form called a fascela and then is pressed down with weight for one day before being salted on all sides.
Raschera should be aged on wooden shelves in a cool, humid room called a selle. The combination of cool temperature and high humidity inside the selle creates a micro-climate that is conducive to the development of the “noble” red and orange molds that enhance the flavor of the cheese. Centuries ago, Raschera was typically transported from the selle to the lower valleys by way of mules. The original round form was cumbersome to carry on mule-back so a square form of the cheese developed. Today, ninety-nine percent of all Raschera produced has a square form.
During the 1960’s the population in the Monregalesi Valleys plummeted as young people flocked to urban areas in search of jobs. As a consequence, demand for Raschera dropped dramatically and production all but disappeared. Fortunately, a group of enthusiasts from the town of Frabosa Soprana organized a confraternity to promote and sustain the artisanal production of this local specialty. Thanks to their efforts, production continued and in 1982 Raschera received the important Denominazione di origine (DO) status from Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture. In 1996 the European Union awarded Raschera its highest status, Denominazione di origine protetta (DOP).
To qualify for DOP designation, a traditional product must be produced within a specific geographic area which imparts unique properties to the product or terroir. In the case of Raschera DOP, the cheese can only be produced and aged within the Province of Cuneo. In order to qualify as Raschera d’Alpeggio DOP the cheese must be produced during the summer at an altitude above 900 meters and within nine villages in the heart of the Monregalesi Valleys, namely: Frabosa Soprana, Frabosa Sottana, Montaldo di Mondovì, Pamparato, Roburent, Roccaforte Mondovì, Ormea, Garessio and Magliano Alpi.
Raschera DOP and Raschera d’Alpeggio DOP are both pale ivory in color and have thin, reddish-grey rinds. Both of these soft, elastic cheeses have delicate, nutty flavors which become savory and sharper when aged. What distinguishes Raschera d’Alpeggio DOP are the herbal flavors of wildflowers and grasses that come from the milk produced during the transumanza in the upland pastures surrounding Lake Raschera. Raschera d'Alpeggio is truly the essence of the Monregalesi Valleys.
* Monregalesi comes from the Latin, Mons Regalis, the name used in feudal times for the town of Mondovì.
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