Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pienza: a tiny Tuscan town with outsized Renaissance architecture and the best pecorino cheese in Italy

In the middle of the Crete Senese—the picture postcard Tuscan landscape south of Siena of rolling grasslands, grazing sheep, and marching lines of cypress trees—rises the tiny town of Pienza, famed for its sublime sheeps'-milk cheeses and its delightful Renaissance architecture.

Pienza is miniscule: just a nine blocks long and three blocks wide, still encircled by its medieval walls, and a population that—including the surrounding area—tops out at 2,231. However, what would otherwise be a scenic blip on the map has an outsized history and major draw in the form of its central piazza.
Thanks to the quirky ambition and deep pockets of a homegrown pope, the main square of Pienza—and the buildings surrounding it and stretching down the main street— were all completely overhauled by a Renaissance architect and laid out as an homage to all those paintings of "the perfect Renaissance city."

Pienza is famous not only for its architectures but also for the excellent sheep's milk cheese, or more correctly, ewes' milk cheese, pecorino, produced in the area. 

The surrounding rolling grasslands raise the sheep that provide Pienza with its other claim to fame—arguably Italy's best and finest pecorino cheeses, available in multiple styles and flavors at the handful of shops and boutiques in this tiny town.

Pecorino just means "sheep's cheese." It is often referred to by its nickname, cacio (pronounced KA-cho). This is no, however, the hard, salty/sweet pecorino romano you are used to grating onto your pasta back home. Though there are various stages of aged, hardened pecorinos on hand, the best pecorinos in Pienza are of the pecorino fresco, or fresh, variety, a soft, buttery cheese that brims with subtle flavors.
Many cheeses are also cured or aged in various wrappings or coatings, imparting still more flavors (some producers actually mix flavors into the cheese itself—bits of black truffle are popular—but purists scoff that this mars the taste and the cheese).

Until the end of World War II, Tuscans used the term "cacio", and indeed the cheese rolling competition held in Pienza on the first Sunday of September is know as"cacio al fuso" - literally, the cheese to the spindle. The aim of the participants in this popular festival is to see who can roll the cheese so that it stops closest to the spindle.