In Italy, many things are done in old fashioned ways that inevitably tie the people to the seasons – growing vegetables, caring for animals, cooking traditional dishes. In the spring there is a pairing of fresh pecorino, or sheep’s milk cheese, and fresh fava beans – cacio e bacelli in Tuscan dialect – that is the perfect example of how the simplicity of a seasonal dish belies the complexity of nature.
Most of us are far removed from the farm and little nuances of life tied to the land frequently escape and astound us. Making cheese out of sheep’s milk, for example, was a revelation to me when I learned that in order for a sheep, or any animal, to give milk, it has to have a baby every year. So in late summer the dairy farmer puts a ram in with the sheep to impregnate them and once the ram’s job is done, he’s put back out to pasture. (When a Tuscan is up to his ears in work he’ll say “I’m busier than a billy goat in September!”) The sheep are then slowly weaned off of milking, ending altogether in late October or early November, and the dairy is closed for the winter.
In a natural setting, where the farmer allows his animals to live as nature intended, fresh cheese is available only so long as fresh milk can be obtained. The industrial food complex has developed to give us fresh cheese all year round, the natural process is controlled with hormones and a sheep never even sees a billy goat.
In the late winter, the sheep give birth to little white lambs and it’s another harbinger of spring when you see them frolicking in the fields. As you can’t keep every lamb born, many of them end up on the Easter table, and the mammas go to milking again.
The first cheese made is fresh pecorino, soft, buttery yellow and aged less than a month. Its arrival is welcome after a long winter of eating only hard, aged cheeses. Piles of new fava beans still in their furry pods, planted in the fall and ripened with the spring warmth, are abundant in the market. Cacio e bacelli, the classic pairing that is a perfect example of Tuscans honoring the seasonings.