passion

What’s Your Passion? Lessons from a Roman Cheesemaker (Part One)

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Deborah raced the tiny truck down the hair-pinned, rocky switchbacks with total confidence and passion. We’re on a mountainside that’s heavily treed and it’s raining. Deborah, our young, cute, tattooed driver is purposely hitting the bigger puddles so that we experience more of a water rollercoaster ride, each time loudly saying, “Scusami!” – Italian for “Excuse me” – and laughing. Reka and I are squeezed into the back, the Italian herding dog’s head resting comfortably on my lap. Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” is blaring on the radio. Alex, Deborah’s happy giant of a husband, is sitting in the passenger seat. He looks back and asks if we like Johnny Cash. We do.

 

We’re headed to dinner with our two new friends who live about half a mile outside of the tiny Italian alpine village of Zoppe. The music switches from Johnny Cash to some American heavy metal. I lean over to Reka and whisper, “This is getting surreal.”

 

We’d met this couple two days earlier. After completing our 100-mile trek through the Dolomites, Reka rented us a wonderful apartment outside of the quaint mountainous village. We used our time here to recharge, work, and write. We both met with clients and held virtual meetings – we felt productive.

 

One morning, while standing on our back deck drinking coffee, I watched Deborah and her cowdog round up a stray calf from the steep, back paddock behind our apartment. In the Alps, all the cows wear bells so they make noises when they run. This calf was stubborn and was apparently testing Deborah’s patience. She shouted commands to the dog and the dog chased the calf back in the desired direction.

 

As a former Wyoming boy, I loved watching the timeless dance between a well-trained dog and its master.

 

Later that morning, Reka and I went for a hike and as we passed a small dairy farm, I recognized Deborah, the young lady who had chased down the calf. She was getting something out of her truck and stopped to chat. She wore pigtails, leather shorts that had once been lederhosen, high-end hiking boots, a tank top, and an opened flannel shirt (I think this is the perfect depiction of an Italian cowgirl). As we talked, Deborah pulled out a tin of tobacco and took a pinch. Yep, just like Wyoming…only in leather shorts.

 

Deborah’s English wasn’t great, but it was much better than our Italian. Eventually, though, she became frustrated and wanted us to meet Alex, her husband/boyfriend (we never really figured out their relationship) to help communicate. We followed Deborah downhill to the lower level of the over 100-year-old hand-built barn, which had been transformed into a house, restaurant/bar, and artisan cheese production facility. When it was originally built, the top level was the living quarters, as it is currently; the second level was designed for storing hand-cut and dried grass for the cows. To this day, they still cut the grass on the steep hillsides by hand. The bottom level, equipped with super low ceilings, housed the cows at night and during the winter. Alex had updated this level to be health compliant in order to make cheese the traditional way, but with modern cleanliness in mind.

 

As we stood outside, Deborah called for Alex, who ducked his head as he came through the doorway. He was long-haired and barrel-chested, and wore hiking boots and long pants pulled up to his huge calves. The top four buttons of his canvas shirt were open and the sleeves were rolled up, revealing tattoos. He donned a big, warm smile.

 

Alex’s English was much better. After standing and talking for about half an hour, they asked if we’d join them for some lunch. How could we refuse such an offer?

 

The four of us sat in their bar where they sell coffees, wine, grappa (Italian brandy), and only food they make, such as cheese, bread, and speck, a form of prosciutto. Inside, huge timber beams ran across the ceilings. Trophy antlers covered the walls and taxidermy animals were positioned all over the place. There was also a special corner designated as a play area for kids (no taxidermy animals here, though!).

 

Alex brought out an enormous plate of cheese, speck, and some bread. He went back for a carafe of water, a large jug of wine, and four small glasses.

 

For those of you who know me, you’re aware that I no longer drink. I like to say that I turned pro in the 1980s and retired in the early 2000s. In addition, I’ve been on a primarily vegetarian diet for quite a while. But, when in Rome, or in this a case, in the Roman mountains, I’m going to do as the Romans.  Reka passed on the pork, but I indulged: a small glass of red wine, cheese, bread, and speck. It was a great lunch and an even better conversation.

 

We learned that they had 15 cows, and earlier this morning, a newborn calf had been born with a little assistance. Roughly 11 of the cows produce milk on a daily basis. This couple made their living making and selling cheese and doing different jobs in the winter. Deborah is a rock climber, ski racer, and helps with races and other events. Alex raises animals, makes cheese, helps with the bar, and hunts deer and chamois, the small mountain goat of the Alps. They live mostly on what they raise, make, and hunt.

 

As a fellow hunter, Alex and I had no shortage of things to talk about or pictures to share from our smart devices. Hunting was clearly one of Alex’s passions and he eventually offered to show me his rifle – a Weatherby .270 with some amazing optics. As we took the rifle outside to check it out, I noticed Alex looking over his shoulder a few times to see if anyone was watching, which leads me to believe there may be a hunting bias in Italy.

 

Reka and I then received a quick tour of the cheese facility. Alex said he would be making cheese tomorrow and if we’d like to join him and learn. Again, we were in.

 

We expected to pay for lunch, as it’s their livelihood and business, but they refused. We thanked them for their hospitality and graciousness, and agreed to see them in the morning.

 

I’ll share more about this experience in next week’s blog.

 

Do you, your partner, or your colleagues struggle with finding your passion? Feel like it’s too difficult? We’re here to help make it easier! Reach out to us today – no obligation or expectation.

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