Wonderful work by the regions’ only woman cheesemaker

About half an hour drive to the east of the town of Reggio-Emilia, or about an hour to the south of Valserena, the caseficio at Roncadella is one of my favorites for two really good reasons. First and foremost, the flavor is fantastic. It’s the kind of cheese I could just keep eating and eating. Not as delicate as the Valserena, but superb without being too strong. For me, the Roncadella Parmigiano-Reggiano really hits a beautiful bullseye—sweet, but not too sweet; salty but not too much so; pronounced and profound, but not heavy-handed. The Roncadella co-op is the only Parmigiano-Reggiano dairy with a woman master cheesemaker! Marisa Verzelloni makes some marvelous cheese. (Just so you’re saying it right as you read, Italians pronounce the “s” in Marisa more as a “z.”)

Like most of what we have here, Roncadella is an “insider’s cheese.” It’s located off the main road—you’d have to know where you were going to find it. “It’s in a sub-village of a village that makes up part of the outskirts of Reggio-Emilia,” Karl-Heinz Berthold told us. It’s a very small cooperative, and unlike most of the dairies in the region, they don’t sell to bigger consolidators or distributors. There’s no marketing department or ad agency to spread the word. Nearly all the cheese they make is sold exclusively through their own little retail shop, or directly to a select group of other premium retailers and restaurants. At their shop, they sell nothing but their own cheese—and generally all of it is the same age, 24 months, which is what Marisa believes is best, and their butter. That’s it. And yet, the shop and cheese keep drawing people. Lousy location, extremely limited product selection, no real options of offerings. When I put it that way, it sounds like a Soviet Russian supermarket. And yet, the energy in the shop is alive, sales are very strong—they sell everything they make even though they seemingly do everything “wrong” by modern standards—and the place is very popular with Parmigiano-Reggiano aficionados.

One local expert told me he goes there to buy cheese to use at most of his cheese-focused events. “I’ve bought cheese there many times over the years,” he said, “and I never got a piece of cheese at Roncadella that wasn’t good.” Further proof? “There is a shop, a family who for generations—his father and grandfather—they run a deli in Parma, and they only pick the best. If you go to their shop, they have other Parmigiano-Reggiano for sale at 14.90 Euros per kilo. But they have also Roncadella cheese, and it sells for one euro more. And people buy it. In this region, remember, you could never get away with that if their cheese wasn’t really excellent.” Another friend in the region said, “If you come on Christmas eve, when everyone in the area wants to have only the best cheese for their family, there is always a line at their shop that goes out the door. 20 or 30 people might be waiting. Other shops—right on the highway and much easier to access—aren’t anywhere near as busy. But Roncadella is where the locals will happily wait in line to pay a bit more but get something really special.” Pretty clearly, this one sounded like a Zingerman’s kind of cheese!

Marisa’s story, and with it, that of the Roncadella cheese, is an unusual one. Her husband was the casaro at the dairy for many years, during which time he was widely recognized for the excellence of his cheese. As is so often the case, his wife had been helping him from the start, but of course it was his name, not hers, that got the public credit. When he died at a relatively young-middle age, the co-op members, shaken up though they were, started the search for a new cheesemaker. It’s not a small job to fill. When cheese is all you make, it’s like a playoff team who suddenly has to find a new quarterback, or a restaurant that’s lost its chef. While others on the team are, of course, also critical to the production process, it’s the casaro who oversees everything, the one who brings farmers, makers, maturers, and marketing all together. They’re the conductor that brings everyone and everything together to produce a high-quality concerto of flavors.

Shortly after the search commenced, the president of the co-op had the idea to talk Marisa into becoming the cheesemaker. She was not, so the story goes, immediately amenable. She was already over 50 years old. In Italy, and especially with the Parmigiano-Reggiano, there have historically been few women cheesemakers. But somehow over a period of a year or so he talked her into it. Happily, for cheese eaters in the area—and now, in Ann Arbor as well—she’s still going. It’s working. Karl shared that, “She’s been doing it for ten years and people say the cheese is even better than when her husband had it.”

To be clear, Marisa’s chosen professional path is not an easy one. The cheesemaker—male or female—has a hard job. They work year-round, many without a day off, let alone a vacation. The cows, after all, work on holidays and Sundays too. And, as Karl explained, “The cheese dairy is only half the job . . . . you have to coordinate all the farmers, the milk delivery, the sale of the cheese. You are the player, but also the coach.” Of late, there’s been a lot of cheese theft. It’s an easy thing for thieves to work with. There’s a guaranteed market. And once the wheels are cut, there’s no way anyone can prove which dairy the cheese came from. “She had thieves again recently,” Karl conveyed. “Usually, the casaro sleeps on the first floor of the cheese dairy to guard the cheese. But they broke into the warehouse in the middle of the night.” We should, I suppose, add “security guard” to the list of the casaro’s duties. “It’s a tough job,” he went on “And being a woman in a man’s world is very difficult. Honestly, she needs to be twice as skilled as a man to succeed.” And yet, she’s doing great work, and seems to benhaving a lot of fun in the process. “In theory,” Karl said, “she should be tired. But she doesn’t want to stop because it’s her life.”

As delicious as it is, we came very close to not finding this cheese. Almost everyone we’d asked sang the small dairy’s praises so we were eager to get there. We’d been scheduled to go on the first day of our visit, a Friday, but then found out that our excellent importer, Carrie Blakeman of the Rogers Collection, was going to take us there on day two, so we cancelled our original visit. Carrie had met Marisa years before on the tip of a friend who knows she has good taste. Given Roncadella’s low profile and elusive location, the friend was giving her a nice little gift. A special artisan source that might otherwise likely get missed. As luck and travel often have it, Saturday’s schedule ran long and Roncadella didn’t fit into the agenda. Fortunately, Carrie was determined to get us there. She woke up on Sunday morning with the idea to borrow a friend’s car and drive us to the dairy herself.

Many shops in Italy—especially in the countryside—aren’t open on Sunday at all. Those that are, usually close quite early. We were still about half an hour away according to the phone when Carrie got a text from Karl. He’d gotten ahold of the co-op shop. “They close at noon.” With still half an hour to go, it wasn’t even close. It looked likely we were going to miss Roncadella again. Going 0 for 3 when we were so darned close was very frustrating. Carrie called Karl on the phone. “If you’re there in two minutes,” he said, “keep going. Otherwise they’re closed. I tried calling the president of the co-op but he said there’s nothing he can do.” Grace, Carrie and I conferred for a minute in the car. Carrie wanted to push on. Grace and I agreed. “Just keep going. At least we’ll be able to see the building.”

Thanks to Grace’s great backseat navigating we got there. It was 12:25. Way beyond the point of hoping that they’d have casually stayed open a few minutes past closing. We parked across the gravel street and walked quickly towards the small shop. The door was locked and the shades were down. We were going to miss the dairy for the third day in a row! We started to turn and go back to the car.

Fortunately for us, Carrie wasn’t quite ready to give up. She’s quiet, but also, I’ve learned over the years, very focused. She was determined to make this connection work. She walked closer. Hearing muffled voices through the closed shop window, she went up to the door and knocked softly, then quietly said, “Hello!” We heard a voice call back from inside. An instant later the door was being unlocked and we were ushered inside! A short woman—“five foot nothing,” Grace said later—with big, curly, black hair, and equally big glasses, let us in. It was, of course, the casara herself—Marisa. I don’t know how old she is, maybe in her fifties, wearing the white work pants and button-down shirt that nearly all the casari in the region sport (imagine the old ice cream delivery man). She welcomed us in. Another woman was working behind the counter, as well. They knew no English; we spoke only spotty Italian. We all smiled. Marisa remembered Carrie from their original meeting a few years ago. We all smiled and nodded some more. We exchanged a few words of Italian to convey our appreciation. They started asking what we’d like . . . a chunk of cheese was quickly broken into pieces (Parmigiano Reggiano, properly handled, is never cut, only broken so that you get uneven textures and a terrific mouthfeel). We tasted. It was wonderful. Solidly, deliciously, tastily excellent. Excited, we tried to make small talk but given the language barrier—Marisa speaks no English—we were limited.

To be clear, Marisa is a very determined woman and she does things her own way. While other shops offer a range of ages, she generally will sell only at the age she believes best, more often than not, about 24 months. While others have built fancier shops along the highway to get easier access to travelers, she’s stayed stubbornly and groundedly off the beaten path. When the Slow Food folks came around doing research for their Guida al Parmigiano Reggiano (the equivalent of the Michelin Guide for Parmigiano-Reggiano), she basically told them to take a hike. How she makes the cheese, she told them, was none of their business. She’s not afraid to walk her own path.

As we drove away, I reflected that even though it was the end of her work week, at the end of her day, Marisa’s energy was still great. So rare in the world, and yet so common amongst those who are attaining excellence. Her generosity of spirit and their willingness to help out a customer are what made the whole thing happen. I could only smile. It was right out of Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service! Rather than wag their finger at us and point to the clock, they welcomed us in. And, she cut us a couple of big wedges of the cheese. We tried to pay. She refused. More generosity. We took two kilos, and headed home. Happy that we’d made it! And now, as I sit here in Ann Arbor and nibble on small chunks of it, I’m happier still.

Marisa’s cheese really is something special. The first time, best I can tell you, that Roncadella’s Parmigiano-Reggiano is for sale in the U.S. Hopefully it’s just the beginning. I look forward to selling it, and eating it myself, for many years to come. Balanced. A bit caramelly. Toasty. Creamy, but not too soft. Nicely aged. Excellent. A tiny touch of spice on the palate. Really long finish. Fabulous.