Formaggio di Fossa is a cheese from Sogliano al Rubicone in the Emilia/Romagna region of Italy. The cheese's name, which literally means «cheese of the pit», is derived from the process of ripening the cheese in special underground pits dug in limestone.
According to the D.O.P. (protected designation of origin) guidelines cheeses used to produce the authentic «Fossa» must proceed from an area that spans from Imola to Ascoli Piceno. It’s roughly the north/eastern ridge of the Appennini mountains, distinguished by «calanchi», limestone hills eroded by natural agents, the same easy/to/dig rock forming the pits in Sogliano.
The pits suitable to produce «Fossa» instead can be only the historical ones present in the village of Sogliano and its hamlet Talamello.
Fossa cheese is made with either sheep's milk, cow's milk, or a mixture of the two. The cheese typically matures around 30 days before being placed in the «fossa», a pit dug into the ground and lined with straw. The pit is prepared by burning straw inside to remove moisture and sterilise the space. The cheese is wrapped in cloth bags and placed in the pit, which is then closed off entirely while the cheese matures for an additional 80 to 100 days. The sealing of the pit limits the oxygen available to the cheese, enabling a process of anaerobic fermentation. After being removed from the pit, the cheese is allowed to ripen for an additional three months. The technique of making formaggio di fossa dates back to the 15th century.
During the apogee of Malatesta family’s domination of the area local family use to hide supplies in pits dug under the houses, to save them from the raids of invaders and looters. Somebody then must have noticed that the process was giving a distinctive taste to the cheese and so the tradition of Formaggio di Fossa was started. Nowadays a bunch of families of Sogliano al Rubicone have made a lucrative business around their inherited pits, considering that they cash 2.50 € for every kilogram of cheese delivered by producers to be aged in their magic holes.
The Fossa fever started in the early 90’s within a network of connoisseurs from Emilia Romagna and Marche region. It was merely a Typical Regional Product then, with a weak protection of the brand. It’s future was at risk, as the process of ageing in pit wasn’t among those permitted by the recently implemented EU regulation. Local pits owner struggled for years to demonstrate with scientific studies that their product was completely healthy and the pits were meeting the highest hygienical standards. In 2009 this battle led to the recognition of the D.O.P. (protected designation of origin) status by the European Union and the success of the Fossa reached an international scale.
Another battle against EU regulation was the one around raw milk. According to standard EU guidelines raw milk must be processed within 24 hours from the milking. Such strict timing was penalising small producers who weren’t able to deliver milk so frequently. The Consortium of the Fossa cheese succeeded in obtaining a dispensation, local raw milk could be delivered to cheese factories within 48 hours from the milking.
After so many battles won currently the ultimate threat to this product is the fact that local milk is not abundant at all. In the area of Sogliano only 2 farms are still producing milk, and just for direct consumption, not to make cheese.
In general, in the D.O.P. area of provenance of the cheese / the north/eastern Appennini / breeding is being abandoned at an alarming speed. «Within 10 years we will not have any milk to make any cheese to place in our pits» says Marco Pellegrini, owner of Pellegrini’s pits, «at list to produce D.O.P. Fossa».
«The problem is that, with the price payed by cheese factories around 0.35 €/kg, milk production is not profitable anymore» says Roberto Bagnolini, an old cow farmer of the area, «within a couple of years I’m going to quit breeding and focus mostly on the agritourism».
He’s echoed by Giuseppe Lecca, a sheep shepherd based in Modigliana with a very touching story. « In 1961 my three brothers and I , together with our cousins and fathers we emigrated from Sardinia to here. We sailed off on a vessel carrying 700 sheeps, a dozen of pigs and other animals. We landed in Tuscany and then cross the peninsula to reach Modigliana. My father had bought a land here, he was told that this hills were fertile, we would have find « the garden of Italy ». What we found were these barren limestone hills good only for sheeps and goats. My son Marco is continuing this activity but I don’t see much future for it ».