The valley surrounding the town of Scanno is full of surprises. One of these is the bioagriturismo Valle Scannese managed by Gregorio Rotolo, one of the symbols of Abruzzo sheep-farming. After having lunch with their products, we visited the stables, the cheese production and the kitchens, guided by the communications manager Michael Di Genova who told us the story behind the work of Gregorio and his family.
How was Valle Scannese born?
The company was born about forty years ago, when Gregorio Rotolo, about 10 years old at that time, asked his father some sheeps as a gift. His father was a shepherd, emigrated to Venezuela and then returned. It was difficult to start in this field: in those days, a lot of cheese and meat was produced in this area and competition was high. Gregorio sought to find its own space in an already well established reality. What allowed his company to stay alive and thrive – unlike many other companies that no longer exist today – was his ability to give a different cut to the company through product diversification.
What do you mean, when you talk about product diversification?
In Abruzzo the shepherds mainly produced pecorino or cow cheese. Gregorio, starts to variate the production, and the (re)discover some cheeses.
For example, the trittico, a cheese made with three types of milk mixed together, or the Gregoriano, a soft sheep’s milk cheese.
By introducing innovations in the traditional production process of cheese, he led the company toward a different market.
Was this happening in Abruzzo or also elsewhere?
At first mainly in the region, then he chose to attend fairs and markets in Italy and abroad. Two weeks ago, for instance, he was in Paris. The company today is also present in the international market.
Nevertheless, Valle Scannese not only represents a diversified production in Abruzzo and abroad, but is also really present locally: our animals still go out grazing, we are one of the last bastions of the real Abruzzo pastoral spirit.
So you still practice transhumance?
We don’t do a classic transhumance towards Puglia. But we do vertical transhumance in the summer, when from the 1300 meters where we are now, we bring cows and sheeps up to 1600, 1800 meters. Depending on the type of animal.
The company has also become the center of a network of local producers. Do you want to tell us something about this project?
It is a network of producers who consider the quality of the product as very important. At the same time we dedicate special attention to the approach to production. We work also with generating a new awareness among the producers.
It’s called Laterra si ribella [Land rebels, ndr]: the name refers to the fact that, however good the producers may be, there are always external factors deciding the fate of the products.
Today the “shoop-keeper” voice is missing: when we go to a shopping mall and we need a pair of shoes, a book, a ham, the customer enters, look around and buy what he is looking for without any advice. Noone is there to explain strengths, weaknesses, peculiarity of the product in question.
Laterra si ribella wants to be this: a meeting point to educate others and itself.
It’s an ambitious idea, but this summer we reopened a shop in the village and we were able to offer different products by several producers on a regular basis.
For example saffron produced by Zaffineria, a girl from Fara Filiorum Petri who cultivates it in Navelli.
By buying saffron from her, you also buy an attitude, the desire to continue making saffron in a certain way, and the same goes for any other products.
The low cost, unfortunately, means giving up carrying out a certain way of work.
What we are trying to do through Laterra rebels, is to give people the opportunity to meet the producers. It is not a regular shop, it’s a meeting place.
Some time ago we met Il Mercato Scoperto di Lanciano, which is part of the Genuino Clandestino network and which follows the same values. Is it a coincidence?
I don’t know them yet, but we are not inventing anything new, we are only making sure that what we have remains. I don’t know how it is in other areas, but here in the mountains it has become a necessity.
Being in the shop for instance, I had the opportunity to get in touch with different types of people, with different social, generational, economic standpoints. We realise that eating genuine and recognizing the values that exist in a territory, reunite us.
But is this at everyone’s reach?
It is a good question, of course. However, I happened to meet young people, perhaps without a stable job, who come to buy our cheese because they recognize themselves in the history and values of that producer or that cheese.
Today you don’t buy something just because it’s beautiful or good, but also based on of how it’s made, where it comes from. Younger people, even 12-13 years old, are very aware, and ask me very direct questions about how animals are managed, about the life if cows and sheep, how long an animal remains in management, etc.
So how does your ethical approach apply to animal management?
We currently have 1500 sheep, 40 cows and 100 goats that go out to pasture every day.
More important is to understand how we manage the flock as whole today: to try to increase production, we have decided not to integrate new animals, but to make a selection of females and males during the breeding phase.
This is leading us to always keep the same number of animals: they give us more milk and much stronger animals. Even if this means producing a third of what we could potentially produce.
An intensively breeded cow can produce 45 liters of milk per day. We can pull a maximum of 10-15 liters. However, in intensive production a cow lasts between three and five years. We, on the other hand, have older cows as they live longer. The same goes for sheep.
And their food is completely organic, of course.
How many people and roles exist in this type of company?
Obviously there is the shepherds, accompanied by the Abruzzese dog shepherds.
Then the cheesemakers. We also have a farm holidays, as part of a new concept: we have chefs, waiters and so on.
To manage the production only, there should be many people with different roles, however here everyone finds themselves doing a little bit of everything and for this to work well you need to have in-depth knowledge of animals, dynamics and seasons.
But today you also need figures like yours, dealing with communication.
Definitely. Before doing this job I was a production and tour manager in the music world.
I decided to take what I had learned in the world of music and apply it in this field, back home.
A role like mine is fundamental, but it is also central to be aware of what this company has represented for the territory and what it must represent from now on.
Meanwhile, the Abruzzo dog shepherds, intrigued, surrounded us. How are they involved?
There is a choice to make: to defend the flock from wolves you can take a rifle and shoot, or you can take the dogs.
Here we never considered shooting the wolves, the deers or the boars or any other animal. We rely on the dogs.
They are our greatest ally, and not involving them would also frustrate them.
Gregorio Rotolo, as well as Nunzio Marcelli, became a symbol from shepherds.
They are now rockstars. Because they remained consistent with their idea of local and business development.
With them we are trying to do a great work to enhance the work of the shepherds.
In Abruzzo the common idea is that you end up being a shepherd if you don’t study enough: “studij, ca sinnò vi ‘press à le pecur” [Study, otherwise you’ll follow the sheeps, ndr.], they would tell us when we were young.
This image must change.
How can Valle Scannese represent an example for the territory?
Some of the cheeses you see and have tasted earlier, were created with old recipes.
Others, however, are Gregorio’s own recipes, such as cheese with black zest, barricaded caciocavallo or bear’s cheese, a cheese we produce with layers of raspberry jam inside.
Then there is the marcetto: a cheese that does not exist only in Abruzzo, but can be found in all regions with a pastoral culture.
In Sardinia they call it casu martzu, in Puglia ricotta squanta. It is forbidden to make it the traditional way, as it is a form of pecorino left in less than optimal hygienic conditions. We make it using very seasoned cheeses to start a controlled fermentation. So we have something slightly different from the traditional verion, but legal and safe to eat, with the fermented flavor that we like.
This is a clear example of how the company managed to create starting from a classic local cheese.
This is the type of innovation that can take place across the region. It is the only way we got find our place in the world without losing ourselves.
The only question we must ask ourselves now is: what does Abruzzo represent today in the world scenario?
I already have an answer, and I think we all have it. We just have to find the courage to admit it.
Toulouse, Gennaio 2020