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“That evening, between a glass of wine and a piece of pecorino, I found the answer I’d been looking for—the right way to advertise and distribute my cheese, which is aged according to the oldest tradition.”
I’m here at the Officina del Cacio, a small little cheese shop in the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, speaking with the artisan cheese maker Paolo Piacenti, who has been continuing the family tradition of making Tuscan pecorino, which, after Sardinia, is the largest region for goat’s milk cheese in Italy.
One of Piacenti’s main tasks is that of “finishing” the cheese, that is, adding a special ingredient to the basic product that renders it unique and unmistakable. To finish a cheese, he might use walnut leaves, ash, wine, tomato, oak barrels and a whole range of other ingredients.
“The idea I had that evening in 2002 seemed like a winner to everybody: I wanted to ask artists who were tied to Tuscany in some meaningful way, to create small artworks that I could put on the labels. I’ve loved art since was a child, and my father’s house was always a crossroads for painters and sculptors. But I’d never thought of combining art and cheese before,” says Piacenti.
The labels created by these artists featured a wide variety of subjects, but many of them depicted feminine figures, ladies in Renaissance costumes or countryside landscapes. But there’s a reason why so many of the artists chose women as their subjects, Piacenti says.
“Unlike many regions, in Tuscany cheesemaking has largely been a woman’s job. Since Medieval times, the methods and traditions have been typically handed down from mother to daughter. Only women have the true sensibility to understand when and how to work with rennet,” explains Piacenti.
For the raw milk pecorino from Garfagna, for example, which has subtle flavor of wild herbs, the Japanese artist Masato Yoshioka created the piece, Wind on the Beach, which shows a woman with wind-blown hair. The raw milk pecorino from Volterra shows the edifice of the Santa Chiara cathedral by the painter Nico Paladini. The aged pecorino from Pienza has a label created by Masato Yoshioka, which shows a woman against an evening Tuscan sky. The cave-aged pecorino, which is aged on planks of chestnut wood features a painting, again by Nico Paladini, of the white Tuscan town of Sassi.
Other artists involved in the project are Fabio Calvetti, Fabio Romiti, the American artist Edwuard Giobbi and the Florentine Giovanni Maranghi—nine in total, who each gave a unique image to unique products. Piacenti involved nine artists to work on forty cheeses, and has recounted this incredible collaboration in a book, which will be available for sale online in the spring. So wherever you are in the world, the Tuscan patrimony of taste and art is readily available.