I had thought the smell of cheese would waft across the streets in Valtellina, northern Italy, and it is a mild surprise when it doesn’t. When I emerge – quite literally – from miles of tunnels only rarely interrupted by tantalising glimpses of the mountains and lakes, every expectation is foiled. The Alps that line this long valley north of Milan are far shorter than the majestic peaks further west on the French border. The main roads are lined with small-scale industrial buildings ranging from tile to biscuit factories. And there isn’t a single cow in sight.

But somewhere here, beyond the railway, the hotels for German tourists in search of warmer climes and the signs advertising local apples, lies a dairy country whose history goes back two thousand years. That it takes some effort to find it is a sign that times, and agriculture, have undergone a dramatic change over the last fifty years.

The place to understand exactly what happened is Morbegno, a large village fashioned in the railway era out of four rather distinct neighbourhoods. The tourist season is yet to start in spring, but the streets are bustling. People stride purposely from the banks to the numerous shops. A group of villagers are busy building the finish line for a mountain bike race, which will take place later in the day, when brave cyclists will bike down the mountain at breakneck speed.

Closer to my own heart, a few lounge lizards sit under a vivid sun at the tiny tables of the café in the main square, a cup of espresso in their hands. Opposite the café, a large sign written in an old-fashioned font of early twentieth century origins reads: Alimentari e Coloniali Fratelli Ciapponi. History waits there in the shape of a village store.

Some six decades of social changes are etched in the very face of Dario Ciapponi, who owns the store together with his brother, Primo, his son, Alberto, and his nephew, Paolo. Founded in 1883, the shop has been in his family for four generations and Signor Ciapponi himself has been behind the counter for fifty years. Between old furniture, an ancient till and one of the very first chill cabinets to hit the market, he has seen the valley change and his customers with it.

In his youth, this was a deeply agricultural society. Valtellina’s farming heritage dates back from the days Britain started taking shape as a political entity. Legend wants it that Bitto, the main cheese from the area, was first made by the Celts who inhabited the area before the Romans conquered it in the first century BC.

The cheese’s origins are likely to be slightly more recent, but there is no doubt that Valtellina’s agricultural roots run deep. Medieval chronicles and ledgers record “cheeses from Malengo and the Bitto valley”, and wines “as powerful as God.” Leonardo da Vinci himself, who visited the area at the end of the 15th century, remarked that “Voltolina, a valley surrounded by tall and terrible mountains, makes potent wines and plenty of them and it has so much cattle that the local peasants believe more milk than wine is born [in the valley].”

But an agricultural revolution was waiting around the corner. The 18th century saw the explosion of the dairy cooperatives called latterie sociali turnarie. “Instead of working the milk themselves, dairy farmers brought it to the latterie, where each of them took turns to work it into cheese and profits from the sales were shared,” explains Selene Erini of the Consorzio Tutela Formaggi Valtellina, a consortium that brings together the valley’s dairy farmers.

Until then, dairymen had usually made their own Bitto in their huts on the mountain. A rigidly seasonal cheese, Bitto can only be made in summer when the herds feed on aromatic pastures. The latterie sociali allowed villagers to work milk in the valley during autumn, winter and spring to make a medium fat cheese called semigrasso di latteria, now known as Valtellina Casera. Valtellina came as close as it could to mass production, given the times.

Although the prosperity of the 18th and early 19th century had slowly been eroded by the time Signor Ciapponi joined his father in the family shop in the early 1950s, most people still relied on farming for a living. Viticulture had faced successive epidemics, while cereal farming had given way to forage. But the single most sweeping change had taken place in agricultural property. The big estates of earlier centuries had vanished by the end of the First World War, when land was parcelled out in small family plots. The valley had become a beehive of small and medium farmers.

“Once Valtellina was a lot more agricultural than now, and every family had a cow or two,” recalls Signor Ciapponi. “People lived with cows, a donkey, and a pig, which they made sausages of, and they made cheese [from their cows’ milk]. Families lived in the mountains and they came here to shop once a month.”

This, however, did not ensure a future for farmers. The aftermath of the Second World War, when some pitched battles between the liberation movement and the fascist regime were fought in the mountains, tipped the scale against agriculture. “In 1950-55, agriculture shrunk because people went into factory working where they could get their pension and a salary. It was a mistake and the government should have paid pensions [to farmers] from that time,” says Signor Ciapponi.

But this hardly means farming has disappeared from the valley. “It has started again now, but you no longer have the family with a cow. You now have huge pens with 200 or 300 cows. Agriculture has made a comeback,” he says.

Unable to keep up on price or scale with international competition, farmers have learned to specialise into a niche production of quality cheeses and wines, exploiting the tourism backbone to conquer an increasingly bigger place in the international arena. Today, Valtellina means the cheese triad – Bitto, Scimudin and Casera – bresaola and red wines, as much as skiing and walking.

Indeed, what happened here is a paradigm of how farming could sustainably change throughout Western Europe. “From a production viewpoint, we are very small. If we were to compete solely on production costs or retail prices, we wouldn’t manage,” says Davide Pozzi, Managing Director of the Consorzio Tutela Formaggi Valtellina. “The only way open to us is differentiation because ours is a unique product.”

Valtellina’s secret was to face challenges head-on, finding opportunities where others would see hurdles. When it became clear that their small scale could pose problem, dairy farmers pitched their resources together to form co-operatives, which are the twenty-first century version of the old latterie sociali.

“Small-scale producers have been able to invest in much bigger entities which gained a place first at regional than national level,” says Pozzi. “Obviously, these co-ops are very different from the village latterie of the past, but if you look at their structure they are nothing but a relationship among milk producers. Here, we do not have multinational corporations, but a rapport among dairy farmers who were able to pool together funds, projects and targets, and now are reaping the benefits.”

It hasn’t been a speedy or easy process, but it has worked beautifully. “The first challenge we faced was to reorganise our livestock – with all that is required from a technical viewpoint – to improve the quality of our milk, which is now the best in Lombardy [the northern Italian region whose capital is Milan]. Once we negotiated this, we set out to create the co-operatives, which wasn’t easy, because launching more than one entity always engenders a bit of competition and management issues, but we overcame that. The last stage was to create the consortium which brings together all the milk producers and focuses on quality production of Bitto and Casera cheeses,” explains Pozzi.

But Valtellina has managed to blend the new with the best of its heritage. The methods to make Bitto, for example, are much the same as five centuries ago. Production still takes place in the calécc, the huts where farmers stay while the cows are on the summer pastures. Warm raw milk is worked in the culdere, upturned copper bells, and stirred manually by the cheesemakers. The cheese ripens for 70 days in wooden moulds called fascere and salted by rubbing coarse salt on its surface. But the rennet used to curdle the milk is modern and ensures a more hygienic and better quality product. “Once we made rennet ourselves with the stomach of lambs or goats, which you’d dry in the sun then they would mince them and add a bit of vinegar and salt. I prefer it now because it is more hygienic and more perfect,” says Signor Ciapponi.

And the European Union’s Denomination of Protected Origin now protects Bitto, preventing other mountain cheeses being sold under that name. The result is an extremely rare cheese – the entire valley’s production ran to just over 27,000 wheels last year – which sells locally at £10 a pound and yet is “not even enough for the Italian market,” according to Signor Ciapponi.

A similar pattern has taken place among the local wine and bresaola producers, both of which have their own consortium and EU denominations.

A look at one of Signor Ciapponi’s thirteen wine cellars shows Valtellina’s evolution in a nutshell. Where barrels full of homemade wine would have been in years gone by, now are shelves and shelves of bottles which read like a who’s who of local wines, made by specialist producers: Inferno, Sfursat, Sassella, Grumello.

“We had barrels everywhere here, 200-300hl [5,200 to 7,900 gallons]. We worked with barrels and did the bottling ourselves. We had a large bowl full of water to clean the bottles and when they were clean we would start to bottle and cork. There was only one machine to do the corking, which worked fine for the time, but they are a lot better now. And because the cork at the time was very hard you’d have to choose [a cork which was] two or three numbers smaller than the bottle. Then you’d have to take some wax to close it properly,” recalls Signor Ciapponi. “With time we replaced it all with bottles.”

And where once Signor Ciapponi’s father sold only to the villagers – recording sales into a book so every year, on 11 November, people could come and pay them in arrears for their purchases – the shop has now become a mecca for international gourmets, complete with Slow Food approval and the obligatory appearance in Japanese travel guides. “I have plenty of Japanese and Americans here and now even Indians,” Signor Ciapponi says, pride ringing in his voice.

The truth is tourism helps sell local produce and the products help sell Valtellina as a destination. “Our latest project is to create a Valtellina logo and “users’ guide”, which will be given to local food producers and quality accommodation,” says Pozzi. “We have noticed that we couldn’t go on keeping tourism and local produce separate. [Their] relationship is crucial. Valtellina must put itself in a shop window and it must offer its full potential, otherwise we risk losing our agriculture altogether. And this is what it is all about: keeping our agriculture alive.”

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