Within walking distance of downtown Rome there is a sheep farm that dates back to the Middle Ages. The Casale della Vacchereccia, leased from the Vatican, is nestled in a park that has preserved the kind of farmland that once surrounded Rome on all sides. The humble Vacchereccia still produces ricotta cheese from the milk of the sheep that graze the land.
To get there, I veered off from the ancient Appian Way heading south of the old city walls and walked down a dirt path through pasture land rimmed by oak trees. Just over the treetops I could glimpse the apartment buildings of Rome in the far distance. Down an even smaller side path, past vegetable gardens and an old stone water trough, I came upon the unprepossessing sheep farm. A hand-written sign on the door offered a phone number for inquiries. No cheese today – but I could still appreciate the surroundings. It was like walking 15 blocks from the Empire State Building and suddenly finding yourself in the Vermont countryside.
Somehow it doesn’t seem odd at all for Rome to have a sheep farm in its very midst. Italy, after all, is the home of the Slow Food movement. It’s also proud of its many local products such as Parma ham and balsamic vinegar from Modena. Every neighborhood in Rome supports a farmers market selling local produce. Nothing could be slower or more local than ricotta produced on a medieval Roman farm.
At the moment, Italy is having its problems. Economically, the country has watched its Mediterranean competitor Spain surge ahead of it (symbolized so painfully this summer when Spain defeated Italy in the European Cup). Politically, it’s suffering from the return of Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing media czar and occasional prime minister. And while its European neighbors abandon the leaky ship of U.S. foreign policy, Italy stubbornly clings to the mast. In June, during the U.S. president’s final European tour, Berlusconi praised George W. Bush for making Rome his number one European destination.
But through it all, Italy still has great food, and great food champions. Indeed, it remains a model for the global food movement, more perhaps for the patient efforts of its farmers and artisan producers than for the UN food agencies headquartered in Rome. Every city should have a farm in its midst producing local specialties. Every country should value its unique agriculture as Italy does.
After all, the Berlusconis of this world come and go. But good ricotta is forever.