While centuries separate the Giovale family from their ancestors, they are linked by stirring and herding, aging and waiting – in short, the art of cheesemaking.
“Our family has produced sheep, goat and cow’s milk cheeses for the past 400 years” explains patriarch Beppe Giovale, who along with his mother, siblings, children, and great-nieces and nephews runs a thriving cheese making business in Northwest Italy. “Cheese is alive and dynamic and satisfying. I love it. The entire family loves it.”
We are settled inside his Rome cheese shop Beppe e i suoi formaggi in the city’s Jewish quarter, an ancient strip of land bordered by the Tiber river. Most recently ranked one of the top 50 greatest food stores in the world by The Financial Times, the shop has been the darling of everyone from food critics and turophiles to tourists and locals since opening just over a decade ago. Its counter sprawls the length of the store, clad in soft rounds of goat’s milk caprini, gorgonzola flecked with gray, ripe cheeses that pleasantly ooze and sigh, stern wedges of Parmigiano. I giddily inspect them all.
While the Giovales’ cheeses crowd shelves in metropolitan cities, their story unfolds in Piedmont’s aloof Susa Valley, a verdant swath of slopes and peaks that unspools along the Alps. The valley has provided for the family since roughly 1621, when their ancestors first settled here as shepherds, herding cows, sheep and goats. The animals’ milk became cheese that filled the bellies of the early Giovales. It was only in 1891 that Beppe’s grandfather Eligio decided to officially sell their cheeses. “The business began as a tiny hut perched on the Western Alps,” says Beppe. “At the time they produced only a handful of cheeses – two varieties of toma, a soft cow’s milk that is a hallmark of Piedmont and a fresh cheese – and would sell them at the the Piazza Madama market in Turin.” As a child, Beppe helped run the family cheese stand, but by then he had already decided to devote himself to the craft that had bewitched his lineage. “The transformation of milk into cheese has always fascinated me, far more than my school studies ever did,” he shares. Eventually, Beppe’s parents considered abandoning cheese making and selling their herds’ milk instead, a decision he adamantly opposed. “At that point my parents and aunts passed the reins to the next generation.”
Beginning in the 90s, the cheeses forged in the Susa Valley grew from Eligio’s historic trio of cheeses to over thirty varieties. “The first thing I wanted to do was revolutionize our production. I traveled and saw how cheeses were being made in other parts of Italy and in France and was inspired to experiment. Of course, expanding our repertoire was made possible by modern technology; I could accomplish more on a train than my great-grandfather could on a horse!”
While the quantity of cheeses produced has changed since Eligio’s time, the Giovales still bow to tradition. Cheesemaking remains the family’s heirloom: although retired, Beppe’s mother Nella lives close by to their animals and oversees recipes. She still makes cheese from time to time. Beppe and his wife Juliette (they met, naturally, at a cheese convention) love the buzz of sales. “One of my fondest memories is of being left to man our cheese stand alone for the first time as a kid – I still feel that same thrill today when I’m presenting our cheeses,” says Beppe. His siblings Dario, Maria Teresa, Alessandro and grandchildren Alain and Chantal also play essential roles in production. Dario and his wife Sandra supervise cheese aging and ripening; Maria Teresa chaperones their cheeses to local fairs in Piedmont and Liguria. Chantal cares for the goats, while Alessandro specializes in breeding and livestock. 30 year old Alain tends to the herds, helming milk processing and cheesemaking.
The Giovales also practice transhumance, a seasonal movement of livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures with ancient roots. A form of nomadism, transhumance (Latin trans for ‘across’ and humus for ‘earth in Latin) originated in Europe in prehistoric times but has been widely practiced on every inhabited continent; two years ago the ritual made UNESCO’S List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Every June, the family and their herds trace a path that has been etched into the mountains for centuries, ambling from their base in Giaveno, Turin to Col du Petit Mont-Cenis in France. Fringed by Lake Mont-Cenis, the summer grounds are awash in bright sprays of herbs and flowers for the animals to graze on. “We rely on wild pasture because the vast diversity of the grass and forage make for better milk and thus better cheese,” explains Beppe. “Our animals are happy and tranquil. They wander and live freely. This also is an essential ingredient in exceptional cheese.”
The Giovales once reigned as Val de Susa’s cheesemakers with the most animals – in his heyday, Eligio commanded roughly 1,000 animals. When urbanization seeped into the valley, the herd number was eventually decreased to avoid overcrowding and preserve the animals’ well-being. Today the family tends to 250 cows and a smaller number of goats and sheep. Cows mainly hail from the Barà Pustertaler family (Barà from barrata, or barred, a reference to the characteristic white line across the back). “All of our animals have horns as nature intends,” says Beppe. “Mass production sites will shave down horns because they need the animals to fit in a cage or tight space. Our animals on the other hand are free range.” Animals also eat exactly what they want and when, emphasizes Beppe. “We’d never forcefeed or overfeed them. They graze on hay, or grass, or wildflowers. The animal decides.”
Raw milk, never pasteurized, gives rise to the dizzying lineup of cheeses at Beppe e i suoi Formaggi, all crafted up North and carefully escorted to Italy’s capital (you can also find the Giovales’ cheeses at local markets in Forcalquier, and Uzès and Nice France, Turin, and the historic Mercato di Campo de’ Fiori in the Eternal City). Whether fresh, semi-soft, aged in the mountains or rich and creamy, their “cheeses are alive – not one is the same,” says Beppe as we browse the counter. We start with a tasting of La Giallina, a signature Giovale creation and bestseller. Dense and compact, with an aromatic, nutty tinge, la Giallina springs from raw whole milk, ushered from shelf to table after a 20 month aging period. It shines both when eaten al coltello as an eating cheese or grated over tajarin (a classic Piedmont pasta shape) with a swoosh of butter. Then there’s il Barà, whose milk derives from the eponymous breed of cow, headstrong in flavor, and La Toma Rusolina, concocted exclusively with summer cow’s milk. It ages in cherry wood until September and then is moved back to Susa Valley to complete maturation. The wheel of Toma Val Thuras is more reminiscent of wine than cheese, dating back to 1987, the oldest offering in the store. Fresh varieties like Primosale and Ricotta, meanwhile, are packaged and sold shortly after production. And while not technically in the cheese family, the Giovales showstopping alpine butter deserves a nod, too. Fashioned with pure centrifuged cream and washed in cold water to remove excess buttermilk, this butter begs to bask on a hunk of your favorite bread.
The opening of a Rome flagship store has also given the family room to not just sell their products, but to also impart a sort of cheese etiquette. Older aged cheeses are “special cheeses,” says Beppe. “You eat them little by little and savor the flavor. Don’t pair them with anything else.” Richer cheeses can be eaten with rye bread to balance their lavishness, but the bread must be from a high-quality bakery. Boiled potatoes consistently serve as a great sidekick to cheese, more than jams and honey which Beppe warns can be overpowering.
While the Giovales work to bring their adoration for cheese to Italy, France and beyond, they haven’t forgotten perhaps their most essential audience: the youngest generation in the family. “I think they’ll follow in our footsteps,” says Beppe. “Chantal’s daughter is 9 and she loves caring for the animals and milking the sheep; and her son is 14 and already quite taken with the world of cheesemaking. I’m optimistic.”