By observing long-established methods of sustaining life that engage with nature, I wanted to show how these techniques can secure a way to exist harmoniously with our surroundings through our need to eat.
I would often seek out producers who might be the last to make a particular cheese or cured cut of meat, with the focus always on the practical elements and method of the recipe, as if somehow it were the recipe itself that was at stake. But it is through the discovery of a cheesemaker in the Prealps of northern Italy that I eventually realised that the most important thing we can take with us into the future is that there is no recipe. We need to shed everything we know about the way we have come to understand food, and start again by reconnecting with our senses of smell and taste, of what feels intuitively right when it comes to eating, and embrace the fact that we ourselves are the recipe.
I first met 11-year-old Massimo in the back of a ’90s pickup truck for the 2017 transhumance, where we were moving the native herd of one of the few remaining producers of a rare cheese called macagn up the mountain into wild alpine pasture for the summer. His tanned arm was slung round a young goat he had rescued from the woods a few miles earlier, the two kids looking like the best of mateys in the dry heat. As part of the regional tradition, Massimo would spend the summer shadowing the older herdsmen, hand-milking the cows and turning their milk into macagn way up there, above the village where he was born.
Re-visiting the area five years later, I met with a young mountain guide and scientist who took me up another small alp in the winter where, standing on a frozen lake, our conversation led to fish and food from the mountain, and he was keen to learn about curing techniques I had learned smoking wild salmon in the west of Ireland. His brother had begun making cheese and they were curious to try different methods of preserving it, so I was invited to his family home for a pizza later that week. It was a wonderful meal, with ten of us sitting round a brick wood oven built into the kitchen wall, where we drank and ate delicious pizza whose base was curiously undersalted, and each person would add their own anchovies, cheese, or slice of cured pig jowl.
This was Massimo’s home. He’s 16 now, and when I greeted him I marked how his hands had changed, firm and set hanging low by his sides, with the road map of tell-tale black creases and kinks from the hardships of the farm. After the meal, he took me to see his animals in the back. He has two autochthonous cows from a breed indigenous to his mountain and valley which he milks twice a day, before and after school. They were feeding beneath an open loft of hay that he had cut from wild alpine pasture during the summer, the smell of which was so delicious I made tea with it – sweet and cereal, like wort from the mash tun. He kept the most immaculate stable, clean and filled with the fresh bedding he had cut himself, waiting for the natural signal to let him know to begin milking – when the chickens hopped the old A-frame ladder, flapping along the wall and up into the loft for the evening.
He hand-milked into a small metal pail, which filled about two thirds of the way. Still warm, he took it back to the house, squeezing between everyone’s coats hung along the bottom of the stairs, and down into the basement. Here, one half is tiled, with wooden shelves full of cheeses, and the other filled with laundry hanging above the washing machine. By the light of a warm basement lamp, he added the evening milk to the large pan in the centre of the room containing the morning’s which had been ripening throughout the day, and lit a small stove to heat the milk before adding a spoonful of rennet.
As we wait for the milk to set Massimo shows me his wheels of macagn, all different sizes depending on the yield of milk on a given day, but most interestingly, flat in shape like a frisbee, the majority of which have rinds covered in familiar tufts of velvety mould called Mucor, known in France as ‘cat’s fur’. Massimo’s macagn cheeses are unlike others I have come across in the maturing caves of other herdsmen, and to taste they are bright and yoghurty. But most notably this cheese was very low in salt, which is one of the crucial elements of food preservation (for eliminating moisture).
Massimo sought my opinion, watching with honest and wide eyes as I tried his cheese, knowing my background as a food producer and cheese maturer, where cat’s fur can be an unwanted aesthetic fault in cheesemaking, often indicative of an undersalted make. I began forming my critique into careful words for supportive delivery.
‘It is very low in salt, Massimo.’
He dropped his hands into the pan, held stiff as if holding two invisible apples, and began moving them through the perfect set milk to gently break the curds.
‘That’s because my dad cannot tolerate much salt, and I want him to eat my cheese.’
Massimo’s cheese is one of the truest and most honest foods I have come across.
In this moment, my mind was blown. There I was, standing in the dark laundry room of his family home, with no clip-boards or batch codes, chemicals or blue hair nets, before a young man who outside of school hours makes cheese from world-class milk with his hands and heart for no other reason other than that he loves his animals and he wants to make cheese for his family. There are no set rules, there is no set recipe. He has learned an intuitive process from older herdsmen and their pre-industrial techniques of husbandry and the ancient ways of transforming his landscape into food by making cheese, and through using and trusting his own senses, has figured out how to make his own cheese with the minimum required salt.
Massimo’s cheese is one of the truest and most honest foods I have come across. If he were to commercialise it, just about every aspect of his production would be illegal, and yet, in that moment, I was happy to never eat any other cheese ever again. For me, all learned rules and social constructs were blurred, where the only thing that made sense was this furry cheese in front of me. Massimo and his cheese are as true as the mountain that looms high above the village.
He continued to work the curds, gently squeezing the whey away and packing them into a mould, left on the side of a porcelain sink to drain.
‘What a legend. I think it’s delicious. It reminds me of St Nectaire from the Auvergne.’
‘Ha! It’s good, isn’t it?’
With a mighty grin he took a wheel under his arm and we went back up to the kitchen. As we stomped up the cramped stairs I could hear his dad shout:
‘Here he comes with his cheese! Come on! More pizza!’
It is liberating to focus on the truths of food like Massimo’s cheese. Where the decisions you make are your own, and the trust you place in your senses is empowering. This idea that the key isn’t to follow a recipe, but rather stand back and take stock of what is in front of you, especially when considering engaging with pure nature and the wild. We should forget anything we have learned about buying food, sell-by dates, how anything has ever been marketed to us.
We should forget anything we have learned about buying food, sell-by dates, how anything has ever been marketed to us.
It is a wholly personal experience and relationship between ourselves and our surroundings, where we hold the key to curating our own existence, just by virtue of being.
Back in Ireland, this feeling stayed with me coming into spring, as I tried to maintain this mindset that connects me to my surroundings in a pure way, as I continue to have faith in my own judgement. I wanted to move through life in a way that was exciting and wild, forgetting the conditioning we all have as a consequence of a suing culture and the required use of chemicals, refrigeration, plastic packaging and HACCP protocols. Walks along the coast in a heat-wave led me to harvest my own salt by looking for small holes in rocks that catch the splashes of seawater at high tide, close to where sea thrift grows. It felt right to gather this salt, still high in water content and feeling like wet snow, and boil it at home to reduce it down and sterilise it.
Not far from me there is a beautiful and ancient patch of land where a small herd of Droemeann cattle graze. My friends gave me a large bottle of their raw milk, which I left out of the fridge in a ceramic bowl to sour naturally, with a clean sheet of muslin over the top. After a couple of days, the smell was pleasing and bright, like fresh yoghurt, and I skimmed this natural crème fraîche from the top which I ate with strawberries and mostarda, a traditional way of preserving apples by reducing pure juice to something like balsamic vinegar, syrupy, sweet and tart. A day or so later and whey had formed on the surface, showing me the milk had set by itself. The curd looked clean, smelling zippy and fresh, and I ladled it into a small draining basket I had made with blackberry vines from the hedgerow.
With time and attention, eventually a young and beautiful cheese had formed, which I rolled in the salt I had harvested. It seemed a good idea to turn it over after a day or so, allowing the underside to breathe, and I felt it right to place it on a dry wooden board and cover it with an upturned glass bowl, as you could tell just by looking that it was not happy to dry out.
I could have tried it there and then. But appealing, wrinkly white moulds I had seen on goat’s cheeses began to form on the surface, which kept me hopeful and curious. About two weeks after I had removed it from its basket, as it had developed a uniform rind, looking plump and healthy, I smelled it, trusted it, and ate it.
As with the fish I catch and smoke at home, the scallops and lobsters I dive for, the pig I butcher and cure, the mushrooms I hunt, or the wild yeast cider I make, it is a viscerally liberating journey that makes me fall in love with being alive by feeling wholly connected to myself and the landscape that allows me to live.
All photos by Max Jones @uptherethelast https://www.uptherethelast.com/