Challier was one of the first to believe that it was time to showcase this unusual cheese. “Plaisentif is made from whole, raw cow’s milk from animals that graze in the open air. When they first reach the mountain pastures, the high-altitude meadows are covered with blossoming violets.” That explains the the Plaisentif secret: the cows graze on aromatic grass and flowers that transmit their qualities to the milk, and therefore to the cheeses produced in that period. Challier brings his herd to Pian dell’Alpe, an idyllic plateau under the Colle delle Finestre mountain, about 2,000 meters above sea level. Another key characteristic of Plaisentif is that it is a high-altitude cheese. To use the name, the local rule states that the animals must be pastured at least 1,800 meters above sea level and within the zones of the Alta Val Chisone and the Alta Valle di Susa, a group of a dozen villages. Today, about ten margari are once again making Plaisentif: “We have 1,500 to 2,000 forms a year, no more than 200 per cheesemaker. Each are certified with a burned-in brand on the rind and the name of the producer,” explains Challier.
To taste this extreme-niche product requires a special trip to the source. Many customers reserve wheels months before the third Sunday in September, the official day on which Plaisentif can be released for sale. The occasion is the Fiera del Plaisentif in the town of Perosa Argentina. Since the cheese must age for at least 70 days and is normally made between the middle of June and the middle of July, the timing is inevitable. The rules simply reflect an old peasant tradition. The herders lived isolated for three months of the year. When they came down from their alpine pastures, they carried with them the cheese they had made. The most desirable wheels were the oldest ones, those made in the earliest part of the summer. We had the answer, then, to our question. Plaisentif is not just a marketing ploy. It is an ancient product, only recently brought to the public’s attention. Much of the credit for its new life goes to Giovanni Laurenti, the mayor of Perosa Argentina. After discovering 16th century documents describing the cheese, he convinced a group of margari to start producing it again. He also brought his mountainous zone, still unblemished, to the notice of travelers. Val Chisone has some of the most interesting rural architecture in the region. In this area near the French border, the patois spoken is similar to that of southern France, bearing traces of the medieval Occitan language. Another unique tradition is their music, still performer in the zone and celebrated in an annual August festival. In Pragelato, in the Museo del costume e delle tradizione delle genti alpine, dedicated to the culture of this mountainous part of Europe, we meet Guido Ronchail, one of the last makers of the ghironda, the musical instrument of the Occitan-speaking peoples. Ronchail is not only a scholar and performer; he is also a devoted beekeeper. A small group of apiarists have organized to protect the typicity of their product. For two generations they have been helped by the work of Rosina Ponsat and Giacomo Tillino who founded the Albergian brand.
Typical food items from the Val Chisone, such as the liqueur Genepy, jam, herb mixtures, and of course honey, are now more easily available to the public. Clearly, Plaisentif cheese is the key to this valley, but it is not the only discovery we made. A marked walking path connects the alpine meadows, crossing two nature parks, Orsiera-Rocciavré and Val Tronchea. The trail has few climbs and descents, so is easy enough for most people to enjoy. Fifty kilometers long, it can be done over several days, with overnight stops and cheese tasting in towns along the way. Start from the Selleries hut at 2,000 meters, where Plaisentif is made by Chiaffredo Agù. Move on to the zones of Usseaux and Balboutet, where Ivano Chaillier, Ettore Canton and Stefano Agli produce the cheese. The higher villages, Grand Puy, Rif, Alleveè and Villardamond offer splendid examples of mountain architecture. Giovanni Perotti and Tiziano Agli work here. Even higher, above the ski resort of Sestriere, the Monterotta pastures are used by Ettore Lisa to make Plaisentif. Finally, across the Chisone river, in the Parco Naturale of the Val Troncea, several herders are active. In Laval, Franco Perotto makes cheese, ricotta and butter, while in the village of Troncea, we find Mario Giletta. Even higher, at Alpe Meys, 2,050 meters, is the summer workshop of Gianluca Raso. He belongs to a family of herders that, ever summer since 1926, move to the heart and heights of Val Troncea to make alpine cheeses. “It’s a full-flavored cheese, fairly hard, tending towards chalky,” he says of his Plaisentif. But to taste it early, you have to walk six kilometers. The classic Plaisentif form is about 2 inches high and 12 inches in diameter. The cheese varies from straw-yellow to gold and bronze colors in riper cheeses. On the nose, notes of butter, herbs and wild flowers. Occasionally, a hint of toasted hazelnuts appears, a complexity characteristic of the alpine pasture. In the mouth, the cheese is moist and compact. An almondy note on the finish becomes slightly sharper with age.