Formaggio di fossa (cave-aged cheese): delights from Romagna
This cheese has become the gastronomic symbol of Sogliano al Rubicone; its flavour is appreciated all over Italy. Producing formaggio di fossa is a long and arduous process. The initial cheese must be created from high quality milk and should already have undergone partial maturation. The cheese is then deposited in pits carved into sandstone rock, where it remains for three months. During this period the cheese undergoes special biochemical processes which alter its organoleptic characteristics, resulting in a final product with an extraordinary and unmistakable flavour. The pits are generally flask shaped, with a base of about 2 metres circumference and a height of about 3 metres.
The phases of maturation
The preparation of the pit consists of burning straw inside it to reduce accumulated humidity, which also acts as a type of sterilization against germs which could adversely affect normal fermentation. The walls are then lined with a layer of straw sustained by a framework of vertical sticks held together horizontally by wooden rings. The floor of the pit is covered with wooden boards. The cheese, placed in numbered cloth bags, is then deposited inside the pit. Two numbers appear on each bag: the first indicates the owner, the second the weight.
The bags are stacked up to the opening of the pit, which is then filled and covered with cloth to limit perspiration as far as possible, then covered with a wooden lid and sealed with chalk. This is done twice annually, in spring and again in summer.
Maturation, which takes place in specific conditions of temperature and humidity, commences when the lid is sealed. The process gives the cheese a strong flavour and an intense aroma, renders it easy to digest and improves its nutritional characteristics. Maturation also results in a reduction in whey and fats, and many individual cheeses lose their round shape due to compression under the weight of other cheeses. The period of maturation is about 3 months.
At the end of this period the bags of cheese are removed from the pit after shifting the materials used to seal and cover the opening. When the cheese is removed the pit requires a period of three months rest before it is ready to be used again.