Le Tofane farm, famhouse dairy and guesthouse

by admin on 26/09/2018

Cheeses in the farmshop

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Driving on a long and straight gravel road, turning 90 degrees twice and passing a field of grain, we arrived at Le Tofane. We are near Alberese, the small part of the commune of Grosseto, which was planned for being populated by families mainly from Veneto and some internal zones of Tuscany during the 1930s when the National Fascist Party ruled Italy.

Like many other farms in this area, the farm was set up in the 1950s, when the land was confiscated from the big landowners by the Italian state in accordance with the Land Reform acts. By means of draining and reclaiming, huge marshes were turned into farmland, which was divided into plots of 8-20 hectares where a farmhouse was constructed and given to former sharecroppers turning them into farmers who had to pay a yearly rent.

The extent of the land of Le Tofane remains as it was in the early 1950s when the father of the present owner, Daniele Francioli, got the land, amounting to 25 hectares, from the Italian state.

The father of Daniele was a farmer always willing to start using agricultural machines for cultivating the land. He was one of the first to buy a tractor, learning quickly how to repair it should the occasion arise. This ability allowed him to set up a workshop for repairing tractors and other machines of his farming neighbours, giving him a second job. Daniele was always following and even helping his father with repairing machines, making him also adept at this type of work.

Drawing on experience from working at the farm, from attending an agricultural school and from his active father, Daniele was willing to try new things, like raising pigeons and, during the 80s. He was cultivating kiwis, which were much sought after in this period, giving him a secure income. Unfortunately, the price of kiwis decreased until it collapsed because of globalisation. This caused problems for many farmers, many of whom had to sell their farms and find other types of work, while others started guesthouses on their farms. Daniele worked for 10 years as a cowboy with Maremmana cattle and he remembers this period as the best part of his life.

Instead, he turned to sheep farming in 1998, exchanging vineyards on his land with growing forage for the sheep at the same time. Now, the flock of sheep consists of about 100 animals, some of which are a French race called Lacaune  which guarantee a high production of milk and a Sardinian race called Sarda. Although the Sarda sheep also produce a lot of milk, it is most known for its frugality, in particular in hot summers with little fresh grass.

The sheep produce milk for about 6 months a year, but it could be extended by letting the sheep bear lambs twice a year. Instead, Daniele prefers that the quality of the milk is higher by letting them bear lambs once a year only.

During our visit, we could watch the sheep eating forage inside a pen being watched over by a Maremma sheepdog. At the same, the sun was setting on the hills of the Natural park of Maremma, bathing the sheep pen in a warm, pleasant light.

Between the farm and the Natural park of Maremma were fields for cultivating grain and fodder like perennial ryegrass  and grass for the sheep.

Regarding worries for being a farmer, Daniele talked about climate change, which causes hot and dry summers followed by torrential rain and sudden thunderstorms, phenomena which cause problems for agriculture.

During the last years, wolves have also become a problem for the sheep farmers. There are numerous fallow deer, wild boar and roe deer in the forests nearby, but the wolves prefer to hunt the sheep because it’s so easy. Catching and killing wild animals can easily cause injury to a wolf, which might be deadly. Instead, finishing off sheep is much easier.

Daniele is not a hunter and he thinks sheep farmers have to protect their animals. In addition to keeping the sheep inside pens, he has mounted a video-camera with which he has recorded wolves approaching the sheep at least 25 times.

When the wolves are approaching, the sheepdogs are barking, but they are no match against the wolves. However, the wolves have to decide if the price is too high fighting a dog and being injured. When the fields become green again and sheep are let outside, the danger will worsen, but Daniele said it’s possible to protect the sheep against wolves even then.

Next, we entered the small, but modern farmhouse dairy, which looked very clean and tidy. Daniele has a certificate from the EU, letting him export cheese in all of the EU.

In order to make the milk safe for human consumption, he uses a big stainless steel container having double walls, inside of which hot water can circulate, heating the milk to 62°C for a few seconds.

This type of heating, which is called thermisation is capable of eliminating germs and harmful bacteria from raw milk. It keeps the sensory characteristics of the raw milk such that it’s possible to taste what the sheep have been eating before getting milked. Instead, by pasteurising the milk, the sensory characteristics disappear and it’s no longer possible to taste what the sheep have been eating by drinking sheep milk or eating sheep cheese.

In order to produce cheese, the milk is heated to 38°C and rennet is added. After about half an hour in order to let the milk coagulate, it will e turned into a gel. That is, it has curdled. Instead of using a tool, which is called a harp, by dairy workers, Daniele uses a tool with a handle being connected to a sphere consisting of steel circles.

After having divided the gel with the tool, the curds are collected and put in porous containers in order to let the whey  flow out. This work has to be done quickly in order to avoid differences in taste between the first and last cheeses.

Next, the remaining fluid, that is the whey, may be reheated inside the same stainless steel container. Then, white flakes of fat start gradually appearing on the surface of the whey. By using a sieve, a dairy worker can lift up the flakes and put them in another porous container. The resulting cheese is called ricotta.

Daniele and is wife produce cheeses with various types of herbs in fresh, semi-ripened and ripened varieties such that there is a taste for everyone!

Moreover, Le Tofane also sells cheeses in cooperation with other producers. An example is formaggio di fossa meaning “cheese of the pit” where the cheeses are stored in pits excavated in rock. According to Daniele, this way of ripening cheese was discovered during the Second world war when peasants stored cheese in pits dug out under their houses in order to preserve them in case of a raid.

Le Tofane also offers a cheese called “Pecorino alla Birra” in cooperation with the brewery Birra Maremmana.

Daniele has also bought an advanced machine with which he can make yogurt.

In addition to helping her husband with cheese-making, Daniele’s wife collects blueberries, apricots, pears and various other fruits, which she turns into delicious jams.

Of course, all the milk products and the jams are for sale in the small farm shop!

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