There was a time where I would put so much effort in organizing a meal with friends, endless courses, too many appetizers to recount, a tour de force which would leave my guests bloated with food and me totally drained.
We get older, or we grow up and mature, if you prefer. The pleasure to share a meal is still the same, while everyone has a different reason to limit the amount of food they eat. This is when I realized I don’t need to create a Christmas menu every time. I prefer to pick up just a few seasonal dishes with lots of vegetables and I usually choose a cheese board as entree. This is the part I enjoy the most, not just the eating but especially the whole process of selecting the cheese.
When you think about your cheese board, it is wise to choose cheeses made from different milks to suit everyone’s taste: be sure to include a cow milk cheese, a sheep milk cheese and, my favourite, a goat milk cheese. It is a sacre triad which should be respected.
Consider also the age of the cheese: it is always interesting to have the chance to choose among cheeses of different textures and sharpness, from a soft and creamy fresh cheese to an old crumbly one. Add also one or two preserves, or honey, bread or breadsticks.
Extra virgin olive oil oat cakes for a cheese board
When I visited Scotland a few years ago, I was offered oat cakes with cheese and from then on this is my choice every time I have friends over for dinner and a cheese board to be enjoyed. Those oatmeal crackers are usually made with butter or lard, while I opt for a more Italian version, made with a good extra virgin olive oil.
- 100 g of rolled oats
- 100 g of whole oat flour + a few tablespoons for dusting
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
- 50 ml of extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons of boiling water
- Preheat oven to 180°C.
- Blend the rolled oats for a few seconds until coarsely ground, then dump them on a wooden board and add oat flour, salt and pepper. Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil and start kneading.
- Gradually add the boiling water and knead until you have a ball of dough: it will be quite crumbly.
- Roll out the dough with the help of a rolling pin and a dusting of oat flour into a 3-4 mm thick sheet, then cut out of the oat cakes with a 6 cm round pastry cutter.
- Place carefully the oat cakes onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper and bake for about 14-15 minutes until they begin to turn golden on the edges. Let them cool down on a rack.
- Serve cold with a cheese platter.
And here you can find a selection of some of my favourite cheese farms in Tuscany, producing goat, sheep and cow milk cheese.
I met Giovanni and his wife Giovanna by chance, but since then I have learned to appreciate all their cheeses, the young and the aged pecorino cheese, the fresh ricotta, the robiola and my favourite, the milky raveggiolo. They produce their cheese daily, both with animal and vegetable rennet, the ancient one, the first that man has discovered, obtained from the wild thistle, the cinaria cardunculus called presura in Tuscany.
Giovanni’s family came in 1969 from Barbagia, in Sardinia, at the beginning they just produced milk to sell it to local dairies, then they slowly began to produce their own cheese. They are the only farm in Tuscany to produce the pecorino di Lucardo, an ancient cheese mentioned in Boccaccio’s tales. It is made with vegetable rennet obtained from the pressura infusion, it requires a complex process and a long maturing in cloth bags made of a mixture of flax and hemp. It is a compact savory cheese; after a long maturing it is vaguely reminiscent of Parmesan cheese. It was so precious that it was even used as trading currency.
The cheese produced by Giovanni and Giovanna is, by far, my favourite pecorino cheese on earth, and this is an understatement.
Località Podere Paugnano, 33 – 53030 Radicondoli (SI)
San Gimignano. Poggio di Camporbiano
Poggio di Camporbiano is a biodynamic farm located not far from San Gimignano which produces different kinds of flours, from farro to wheat to barley, preserves, pasta, olive oil, fruit and vegetables and cheese. Their cheese is honestly outstanding, either you like the mild cow cheese or prefer the slightly sharper goat cheese. They have a soft stracchino which is creamy and lightly sour, a delicate ricotta, and the best fresh goat cheese to spread on bread. I love to eat their goat yoghurt for breakfast, too.
You can buy their products directly at the farm, at the local farmers’ market and, on Monday, at the farmers’ shop in Colle Val d’Elsa in Piazza Bartolomeo Scala.
Poggio di Camporbiano
Loc. Larniano 25A – 53037 San Gimignano (SI)
Chianti. Podere le Fornaci
Drive a few minutes past Greve in Chianti, take a country road and you will reach Podere le Fornaci, a goat cheese farm which will welcome you with colours, joy, flowers and a hundred of goats. Everything suggests a light-hearted approach to the production of cheese. True, but this happy approach which produces some of the best cheeses I have ever tasted is also based on a profound respect for Mother Nature, her seasons, her rules and times.
Learn more about the farm and its goat cheese here.
Podere le Fornaci
Via di Citille, 74 50022 Greve in Chianti (FI)
Val d’Orcia. Cacio di Ernello
Pienza, a hill town in Val d’Orcia, is world renowned for its pecorino, a chalky cheese, which is fabulous when eaten on its own with fava beans, but also when used in cooking. Just outside the town you’ll find a little shop where to buy a good stock of cheese at Il Cacio di Ernello. You’ll fall in love with this chalky sheep cheese which can be fresh, semi aged and aged. Try also the pecorino aged in walnut leaves.
Learn more about the uniqueness of pecorino di Pienza here.
Cacio di Ernello
Podere San Polo – 53026 Pienza
Val d’Orcia. Podere Il Casale
Podere il Casale is an organic cheese farm run by a Swiss family on a hill in front of Pienza. There reality welcomes you with the silver ringing of sheep and goat bells in the air, with wild artichokes growing at the side of the path, with a persimmon tree perched on a slope overlooking Valdorcia.
It is a place that children will love, full of animals and life: there are cats, dogs, donkeys, geese, chickens, sheep, goats and pigs. A special mention for the cheese, too. They make both pecorino – sheep milk cheese – and caprino – goat milk cheese. You can buy the cheese or enjoy it during lunch or dinner, along homemade dishes. Try their spelt salad, the best I have ever had.
Podere Il Casale
Podere Il Casale 64 – 53026 Pienza (SI)
On a back road to Fivizzano you’ll stumble upon a sign for fresh ricotta. This is where you have to stop you car and get into the cheese shop of the farm Cormezzano, where they sell the cheese that they produce just with the milk of their cows. These cows are lucky animals, too, as they are raised with a mixture of cereals and beetroots, that apparently guarantees an unrivaled cheese.
Azienda Agricola Cormezzano
S.S del Cerreto Km 12 – Fivizzano (MS)
Lunigiana. Capra Campa
To open an unforgettable dinner they served us an unpretentious plate with a fresh goat milk ricotta drizzled with chestnut honey and a few slices of the local bread, made with a part of chestnut flour. All the ingredients were shining through, incredibly fresh and harmonious. I learnt to appreciate goat cheese growing up and today it is probably my favourite kind cheese. I owe this rediscovered love for goat cheese to farms like Capra Campa and to their awesome cheeses.
You can buy their products directly at the farm or at the local farmers’ markets.
Azienda Agricola Capra Campa
Località Braia 9 – 54016 Licciana Nardi (MS)
Let’s talk about how to prepare a cheese board. I found a few interesting articles you might want to read before selecting the cheese for the next dinner party:
- Build the Cheese Plate of Your Dreams by Avoiding These 6 Common Mistakes. Because temperatures count and it is important not to go crazy with the pairings.
- How to create the perfect cheese platter. What to buy, how to serve it and what to serve it with.
- Why You Shouldn’t Pair Cheese with Wine (Plus 10 Tips for Building a Better Cheese Plate). Because the best thing to pair with cheese is more cheese.