Ever notice how an act of faith carried out in public often makes observers uncomfortable? When Tonio Creanza picks up a big knife and begins sawing off a slice from the awkwardly shaped hunk of Altamira loaf by cutting towards his body, his audience as one breaks into emphatic sound bites of admonition. “He’d better watch that!” “Oh, that’s so wrong!”
Slicing bread towards the heart is, of course, an Italian tradition. It is a cultural touchstone the “safety at all costs” folks go without.
Like Italian hand gestures and Italian mothers wielding ancient knives cutting garlic against the thumb, the tradition isn’t going away soon—and it hasn’t killed anyone yet.
Saving the Past—and Perhaps the Future
Mr. Creanza is the guiding force behind the Messors projects. He wants to save bits of the past worth saving. The Good Shepherd, the currently ignored icon of Christian virtue and maker of fine cheese, is one of these.
We are here in the hinterlands of Puglia to discover how real cheese is made. These days there are lots of tours that let you sample such things—but we are also to be thrust deeply into the culture of the shepherd and his current plight. That’s the intangible part of a Messors tour, the part that you take home with you and the part that stays with you forever.
(If you happen to love Cheez Whiz above all or you’d rather experience something else, you can also help restore frescoes in France or Italy with Messors as well.)
So let’s talk about the shepherds and their current plight—and how Messors plans to help.
It is a timeless sight, the shepherd watching his flock as it moves in waves across abandoned fields. To the thoughtful person, it is no wonder that Christianity chooses the Good Shepherd as an icon of virtue and a template for good leadership: he watches over his flock, providing for their health, protecting them from enemies. He moves the sheep over vast territories during the transhumance. As a frequent traveler he carries news and peacefully spreads culture and knowledge from place to place.
If he does his duty well, God rewards him with well being. The farmer (let’s call him Cain), not so much.
For hundreds of years governments have encouraged the shepherd’s way of life for the good of all, providing roads and ensuring pasture for them.
But suddenly, in today’s “modern” world, the shepherd has lost all that was once his. The EU has swerved and sided with industrial crap-cheese manufacturers in requiring methods of production that can take place only in industrial environments, where stainless steel and chemical slurries replace wood and natural substances. There are no longer contracts for pasture or for access to traditional transhumance roads called tratturi in Italy. The shepherd lives on faith alone, clinging to a way of life that has no guarantee of existing past the end of the day. The government has forbidden him to sell cheese—so he sells the milk for a pittance and wonders how he’ll be able to carry on.
But so what? What are we losing besides a variety of tasty cheese produced naturally from methods used for millennia? This is not a rhetorical question; we are not only losing a link to the past, a past that extends and disappears into the murky depths of prehistory—and we are losing the taste of real cheese, a benchmark that keeps the industrial manufacturers of chemical cheeses somewhat honest.
Instead of sending the Good Shepherd groveling to find an elusive job in the big city, what if we, thoughtful travelers, could help him spread the Good Word—and the good cheese?
This is the future of the Messors project. Eventually, a traditional cheese would be manufactured here and aged in the Fornello cave not far from where we (and the sheep) have lunch. Then we would have a kind of traditional food bank, a monastery of good taste—just in case the (new! improved!) dark ages arrive in a sky-darkening web of Cheez Whiz strands.
Let’s take a look at how artisan cheeses are made and what you can expect when you sign up for a Messors culinary workshop.
First I have to admit I’ve watched folks make cheese in Italy many times. I’ve never, however, had the process explained to me so thoroughly—and it didn’t make me feel like I’d have to know if for the test later.
In the end our fearless group had made several kinds of cheese in a single day. The pecorino would have to wait to age. The string type cheese we made could be eaten for lunch. We also made ricotta, using the “milk” that flows from the cut stems of a fig branch instead of rennet from an animal stomach that was used in the pecorino. Natural things. God’s gifts.
I came away with a great appreciation of the knowledge it takes to make cheese, and the ability of the cheese maker to change things up slightly for a variety of different results.
Then, as hungry sheep surrounded the car we had driven overland to get to the shepherd’s house where we made our cheese, lunch was set outside on a stout table. A simple bread soup using the famed pane di Altamura and garnished with poached eggs was first to the table, followed by a bread salad with lots of fresh vegetables. Life was good. The sheep seemed happy. Even the poor shepherd managed a wide grin.
After lunch we explored the cave church just a few hundred feet away from our lunch spot. Cell phone flashlights illuminated fading murals, a reminder of the time Byzantine churches were carved out of the soft rock in some of the many caves in Puglia.
Some day those murals will be brought to light again. You know it because after a day with him you have faith in Tonio Creanza and the strength of his commitment to brighten the future by shedding light on the best of the fading past.
Messors offers various programs in Italy and France. See the Messors web site for more information on the Culinary and Shepherding Retreat. The program is located around Gravina in Puglia, one of my favorite places in Italy.
Notice our shepherd’s hands. Is there a relationship between hands and the jobs they do?