Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pienza: The Prized Pecorino of Val d’Orcia

Our morning hill town adventure began in Pienza today. We had first visited Pienza two years ago, but very briefly. Located in the stunning hills of Val d’Orcia, between Montepulciano and Montalcino, Pienza is a charming Renaissance village that produces some of the best pecorino cheese in the country, one of the few cheeses to be recognized by the European Union as a DOP — Protected Designation of Origin product. Derived from the Italian word for sheep, pecora, Pecorino is made from full cream Ewe's milk, and the naturally growing herbs and shrubs that the sheep graze on around Pienza, are what give the cheese its unique quality, texture and character. 

Pienza's culinary specialty, the prized and pungent Pecorino

The charming shop owner who sold us our first wheel of pecorino

Pecorino is sold fresh, medium-aged and well matured, and while the flavours are quite different, it's a matter of taste when deciding which is your preferred choice. You can get it fresh, fresco, partially aged, semistagionato, or aged, stagionato, which is the kind suitable for grating. 

Pecorino stagionato rubbed with bay leaves

Pecorino Stagionato coated with hay - Shhh...I bought one to smuggle back to Canada!

Many pecorini are also dusted with ground materials which keep them soft and alter the taste slightly. Most popular are cenerato or sottocenere with an ash coating, peperocinato with hot peppers, and tartufato with truffles. Throughout the town, shops are laden with hundreds of flattened spheres of mouth-watering Pecorini, as well as Pienza's great local honey, which pairs up perfectly with the pungent stagionato. 

Piazza Pio II surrounded by the Duomo and the Pope Pio II's family residence, Palazzo Piccolomini

Palazzo Pio with Chiesa e Chiostra di San Fransesco (right)

Palazzo Ammannati

Pienza is named after locally born Pope Pius II, is a jewel of Renaissance architecture and a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site since 1996. The architectural focal point is the square Piazza Pio II, surrounded by the Duomo and pope's family residence, Palazzo Piccolomini, and the beautiful gardens in the Palazzo's interior courtyard. However, the culinary spotlight is the town's Pecorino cheese together with the Pienza's friendly shop owners, quaint cobblestone streets, lovely restaurants and quiet unhurried lifestyle. With it's small size and charismatic centro storico, this beautiful little hilltop town captures the true essence of Tuscany.

Palazzo Piccolomini gardens in Pienza with sweeping views over the Tuscan countryside

One of the town's lovelier restaurants is Trattoria da Fiorella, a tiny family run place in the historic centre of Pienza, also captures the essence of Tuscany. We started with a local bottle of Tuscan red wine from nearby Montalcino, followed by antipasto featuring the towns local pecorino fresca, salumi, prosciutto and cerignola olives which taste more like ripe fruit than olives. We followed with Pappardelle con Chinghiale (wild boar) and Taggliatelle con Porcini, both homemade pastas using typical local ingredients.

Trattoria da Fiorella

Rosso di Montalcino

Antipasto of pecorino fresco, salumi, prosciutto and cerignola olives

Pappardelle con Chinghiale (wild boar!)

Tagliatelle con porcini

After lunch we wandered along Pienza's town walls which overlook the stunning Val d'Orcia valley, home to the area sheep that produce the towns famed pecorino, before returning home to Casa del Laura through Citta della Pieve, home to Italy's narrowest street — Vicilo Baciadonne.

View of Pienza's Duomo from the town walls

One of the many charming homes that dot Pienza's medieval centre

Vicolo Baciadonne - the narrowest street in italy!