One of my favorite parts of traveling is incredible people you meet. Italy is obviously an amazing place to be, but the people here have made this place more memorable than anything. Over a month ago, I got the opportunity to visit a goat cheese farm in the mountains near a small town called Anghiari. My friend Tierney, a Chicagoan who built a second home in Italy 8 years ago, showed me the highlights of all things food and wine around her local towns. She could not stop raving about her friend Brent, a local goat cheesemaker from the States, producing some of the best products in all of Italy. Tierny is passionately obsessed with food. I had no doubt that the cheese was going to be good, but I assumed that she must be exaggerating when she said, “Kasey, you have no idea. You have never tasted a goat cheese this good in your life.”
Let’s just say that I was overly impressed by my first experience at the farm. Brent Zimmerman, the cheesemaker-god, was one of the most humble, down-to-earth, talented artisans that I have ever met. He is the kind of guy you just want to be around. Originally from Michigan, Brent grew up on a farm with a bunch of animals. When all of his friends were playing with toy cars and video games, Brent was on his farm bonding with the animals. Somehow he felt like he could relate to animals more than people. About 20 years ago, Brent moved to Italy, after falling in love with an Italian stallion in New York City. The only way he could get a Visa to live in Italy was to start a business. Brent decided to do what he knew best…buy a bunch of land and animals and become a farmer. He had no idea that this move would lead him into cheese-making. That is what I love most about his story. The fact that Brent just followed the current of life, love and opportunity to find his purpose in life. I guess I hope the same thing will happen to me.
The first time I met Brent, I toured around his farm, bought some incredible cheese and actually got the chance to cook a typical Tuscan meal at Tierney’s house the following night. The dinner was special because I got to see a different side in Brent. The side that is absolutely hilarious, the worker that is tired from 12 hours of daily manual labor, and the person with a dark past that has fought to change his future. That dinner made me want more time with Brent. I was attracted to his energy, work ethic and approach to life. After dinner, I asked Brent if I could visit the farm again and work with him for a few days. He answered without hesitation, “whenever…call me. As long as I am cheesing and the girls (his goats) are giving me milk, you can come whenever.” I was pumped for the next visit.
Two weeks ago, I got the chance to return to Valle di Mezzo farm and spend a long weekend with Brent, his goats and my friend Kelly (who was visiting from the states). This time, we were able to get our hands dirty in the cheese room. The best part was not making cheese, it was actually listening to the stories Brent shared about his life, passion, and love for animals. Within hours of our arrival, Kelly and I met Brent in his cheese-room dressed in white rain boots to our knees (to keep the room clean), surrounded by the distinct smell of fresh cheese. We talked with Brent as he made fresh ricotta. He was standing over a huge stainless steel vat of liquid. Brent used a slotted spoon to delicately skim fresh ricotta curds floating on of the liquid from the whey on the bottom of the tank. He layered the ricotta curds into waiting plastic forms, as he told us about the delicate process of cheese-making and how he fell into cheesemaking:
The rest of weekend was full of unforgettable memories and lots of cheese. It felt like we were there for weeks….Working in a local farmers market, learning about the goats and cheese making, going to local chestnut festivals, drinking too much wine, eating delicious food surrounded by endless laughter. There’s too much to tell. I will have to write it in the next blog. For now, I hope you understand how amazing it can be to discover a wonderful person that can make you see life differently and produce amazing food!