A chorus of cowbells chimes overhead, sounding like a Javanese gamelan orchestra. On the hillcrest, forty alpine cows graze on emerald grass and wild flowers fresh from last night’s thunderstorm. They’ll be providing lunch today: fresh mountain cheese.
Ten hikers on our DOLOMITES tour trudge up the gravel drive to Malga Budui, a cheese farm on Mt. Cesen, the mountain that towers over Valdobbiadene, ground zero for Prosecco wine. Other than cows, one finds mostly hard-core cyclists on the mountain, attracted by its 10-mile ascent up hairpin switchbacks. We’re the only hikers around.
A tractor and wagon transporting steel canisters of fresh milk sit outside the farmhouse. Vendita formaggio, says the sign: Cheese Sold. We scoot into the wooden picnic tables and await our midday feast. While the cheesemaker goes about his business, ducking in and out of a small stone building in white plastic boots and apron, his wife and son bring out the food.
It comes in waves: First, the essentials: warm loaves of flaky bread and carafes of vino sfuso, a simple red and fizzy Prosecco. Next, sweet-and-sour vegetables and two types of homemade soppressata salumi, dotted with black peppercorns. Then there’s the fresh, raw-milk cheese, tender and milky white. Now the coup de grace: rough-grained polenta, hot off the grill. “The Venetians were known as polentoni, polenta eaters,” says my husband. We can see why.
We go wild for the smoked ricotta, its charred, smoky flavors recalling Girl Scout campfires. Even the frugal eaters at the adjacent table, who have left behind unfinished plates of everything else, wrap up the smoked ricotta in a napkin to take home. The mamma brings out fresh ricotta as well, white and fragile as newly fallen snow. We gobble it up.
Before leaving, another son comes out with a bottle of homemade amaro made by a friend down the road. Made from mountain blueberries and herbs, this digestive goes down easy. One guest pours it on the fresh ricotto, tastes, then bobs her head in approval. It’s too, too good. The best food yet…until the next meal.