In a town nestled in a thickly wooded valley on a volcanic slope in southern Tuscany you may be able to discover what is certainly Italy’s most closely-guarded culinary secret, a rare cheese made from pig’s milk called Porcorino (Porcherino in the local dialect).
Shaped into firm, exquisite rounds only an inch or two in diameter, produced in small quantities almost exclusively for local use for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, some food scholars have speculated that one of the objects on the table in Da Vinci’s famous fresco of The Last Supper in Milan, is in fact a round of this tasty food. How such a localized product was brought to the great painter’s attention is unknown, however, and the contention remains controversial.
I first learned of Porcorino from my friend Jane, who maintains a home outside a town in Tuscany made uncomfortably notorious by a best-selling book and film. She had heard about this particular product of the Tuscan hills, but the exact location of its manufacture was obscure. Rumor may have placed it far up the Van di Chiana. Nothing was known of its methods of manufacture. All was shrouded in the obscurity of legend.
My curiosity was piqued, and if it in fact existed at all, I was determined to find it. After many years of casual, intermittent questioning in many a country trattoria (perhaps in this case, trotteria?), I stumbled quite by chance on the single village where it is still produced. There I was introduced to the head of the family.
After a tour of his farm one damp autumn afternoon we settled in the kitchen over miniscule glasses of fresh grappa. Much to my delight he brought from a locked wooden coffer a small half-round and offered me the opportunity to taste a miniscule flake of the treasured cheese.
It has a consistency both firm and runny, somewhere between brie and pecorino. The flavor clobbers the hard palate with a sensation nearly indescribable in its complexity and overwhelming richness: a product of the swine to make one swoon. Imagine a milky tiramisu that melts and vibrates before exploding with overtones of porcini mushroom and a back taste hint of chestnuts (perhaps a product of the pig’s diet). Imagine damp woods, crisp autumn leaves crunching under foot, a dog barking in the distance. Imagine wild strawberries and rotting logs.
Challenges to Porcorino production are great. Although pig milk, at eight and a half percent butterfat, is exceptionally rich and the proportions of components like water and lactose are similar to those of cow milk, pigs produce on average only thirteen pounds of milk a day, far below that of a cow (at 65 pounds). For now production is limited to a few thousand liters every year from a small herd of half-wild swine.
Milking a pig is extraordinarily difficult, to say the least. For one thing, they have fourteen teats as opposed to a cow’s four, and when stimulated to produce oxytocin, they eject the milk for only fifteen seconds at a time (the ejection time of a cow, by contrast, is well over ten minutes). Hence it requires enormous dexterity, skill and speed. Only two or three members of one family carry on the tradition. They are now quite elderly and the young are moving away to Rome or Florence. It isn’t at all certain the tradition can be maintained.
Since I was sworn to secrecy I cannot reveal the exact location or name of the village. But the hunt itself is more than half the fun. Just ask on your travels through the region if anyone knows of the traditional Pig Cheese of Tuscany. Eventually your patience is sure to be rewarded! After all, Porcorino (or Porcherino), likely the only pig cheese found anywhere in the world, is an experience out of this world.
National Porcorino day is April 1st