Foods of Emilia Romagna, Italy: Thistle Flowers and Sheep Cheese Production in Montefiore Conca
During my last visit to Rimini, Italy, as part of the #BlogVille project, we visited a sheep cheese farm — a place I am still determined to own one day! Before getting settled in and learning about the cheese, we were immediately entranced by the dried flowers adorning the property, many of which were hanging from the covered patio.
It turns out that there is a very good reason the yard was covered with these beautiful purple flowers. We were told they were a type of artichoke flower and had more than a decorative purpose — they are actually utilized in the production of sheep cheese.
Some types of thistle flowers produce a milk coagulating enzyme and is used to make “thistle rennet”. In Googling to find out a bit more information, I discovered The Joy of Cheesemaking spoke with a master cheesemaker who confirmed that it is commonly used in Spain and Portugal as a vegetal rennet to coagulate sheep milk cheese. (She has a pretty detailed explanation from a workshop she did in Sicily for those who want to know the intricacies of how it’s done.)
The flower’s name is the Cardoon Harvest and it has been utilized in cheesemaking for centuries. According to Culture Cheese Magazine, modern thistle rennet cheeses all share a common ancestor in shepherd cheeses made high in the Iberian mountain range, known today as the Serra da Estrela. Through time, their popularity spread throughout southern Portugal and western Spain, where they are still commonly seen today.
Obviously, we were not in Spain nor Portugal, but the hinterlands of the Province of Rimini in Montefiore Conca. It’s not an easy spot to find, but certainly worth the trek as theese were some of the best cheeses I’ve sampled during my travels. The name of the farm is Azienda Agricola Il Buon Pastore, which seems to translate to “The Good Shepherd.” The husband and wife team produce a stunning selection of fresh sheep cheeses, all unpasteurized (post still to come!) They speak no English, so have an Italian speaker call and then you can stop by and purchase cheese direct from their small shop onsite.