Valtellina: The Bitto Museum
Come to Gerola Alta to taste the king of cheeses from Valtellina!
by Syusy Blady
If you take a bus you can reach Gerola Alta on the river Bitto, which names the famous cheese. The word Bitto comes from the celtic word bitu, and this says a lot about who passed through here in ancient times! The Bitto is the king of cheeses, his worship, his majesty! And if you come here you cannot go wrong… There is Via Bitto, Hotel Bitto, what else? Of course, The Bitto museum!
It is modern and naturally cooled with an ingenious canals system that end up in the river; therefore the air comes straight from the river and you can even adjust it! The museum is chock full of Bitto wheels meticulously preserved for their super long maturation. Here the cheese ages for over 10 years and the wheels are beautiful, they’re true works of art, they look like shamanic drums! If there’s something that never changes that is the shape of the Bitto. And there’s a reason for that: ages ago there weren’t streets and cheeses were transported on donkeys backs. The round shape with a concave recess served precisely to facilitate the transportation.
For how it is done, for its particular production, for its process of ageing and for the ability of the producers, the Bitto makes Japanese people go crazy, because they have a real cult for the products that are the result of a wise ritual. Indeed they wonder why those artisans, who are able to create one of the greatest product in the world, aren’t called Masters! Like master cheese-maker Enrico Colli, who tells me how the Bitto is made in the mountains: the master cheesemakers go to the mountain pastures from June to October, where cows can graze munching on the fresh summer grass. Also the goats are brought to the mountains, goats with long horns, of a very special breed. In those days the cheesemaker lives alone in a pasture calécc, a structure made out of rock that creates a fairly enclosed environment, but not completely closed. On top of it there is a cloth, it looks more like a tent than a shed. But why all this? To quickly turn the cow milk in this wonderful cheese.
For centuries the Calèccs have been the travelling workshop of these artisans of the mountains. We can imagine how the life of the cheesemakers is during the months in mountain pastures, certainly very solitary and nomadic. They stay in the same place only for 3 or 4 days, then they move to ensure always fresh grass to the herd. The Bitto is made with fresh milk, and the taste and aroma of the Bitto remind a little bit of the grass the cow’s just eaten! I understand well how this work also has an important ecological aspect, a pasture and landscape conservation aspect. In the mountain pasture they work from 4 am till 11 pm, for 5 or 6 months!
They becomes actual hermits, that’s why I asked Enrico what he feels when he comes down from it? He answered that he liked to be alone, and when he comes back to the valley he has some difficulty in returning to the society. He needs a few days and needs to meet one person at a time, not all at once! So producing the Bitto implies adopting a lifestyle in contact with nature that many young people seem to have re-discovered: many of them began to learn the job, also to spend the summer in the mountains, following the shepherds and sleeping in the Calèccs to take a vacation!