Southern Tuscany: Cacio e Pere

We are still in southern Tuscany , we began our exploration of the Val D'Orcia. This time, we take pleasure in introducing you to Pienza, a unique city in this beautiful and unspoiled area of Tuscany. The sheep of the Val D'Orcia are one of the area's agricultural mainstays, and they provide a wonderful cheese: Pecorino di Pienza. The sheep filled countryside around Pienza is also home to orchards, and many shops in Pienza sell delicious locally made preserves. Along with these, the local farmers are quite often beekeepers, too, and Pienza is famous for its honey. Today a simple recipe, designed to please after the indulgences of the holiday season. It features the pecorino of Pienza, locally known as cacio, complemented by Tuscan honey.

Pecorino con Pere e Miele

In Pienza, a festival is held in honor of the local Pecorino in early September. The hard round balls of Pecorino, often aged in a coating of ashes, are used in a ball game! Perhaps you can imagine this as you cut into a pecorino from this area south of Siena, to make this delicious and refreshing dessert or snack on a cold winter evening.

1/4 to 1/2 cup of honey

1/2 pound of pecorino, sliced or shaved

2 or 3 ripe winter pears, cut into slices

Warm the honey and drizzle over the slices of pear and pecorino. This is delicious when accompanied by walnuts. Enjoy!

Il Cacio Pecorino

In the Val D'Orcia, pecorino is the most widely produced and popular cheese. About 40% of all Italian cheeses come from the milk of sheep, but here, in the territories of the Crete and the Val D'Orcia, sheep's milk cheese is the most commonly produced of all cheeses.

The taste and aroma of the local Pecorino reflect the beauty and tranquillity of the surrounding Val D'Orcia. This cheese is a worthy reflection of the landscape from which it comes. It is best when savored with a wine from the area, perhaps Montalcino or Montepulciano, and the combination of wine and cheese are evocative of the gentle countryside and picturesque villages that produce them.

The pecorino is made by traditional methods and relies on several factors for its taste and texture. The sheep are carefully bred, and fed on the abundant and aromatic grasses of the Val D'Orcia, creating a distinctively fragrant and delicious cheese. The milk is still often strained in burlap and cooked in great cauldrons handed down through generations of farm families. Another of the important factors in local pecorino production is the air in which the cheeses are left to dry. These conditions are carefully controlled by the local producers, who are justly proud of their product.

The fresh pecorino is edible just twenty days after its production. Generally, the cheese is aged for four months.

A seasoned pecorino is also produced, and this cheese is delightful with the red wines of the area. Below we have a wonderful wine suggestion for those of you interested in trying our recipe for Pecorino con Pere e Miele.

Moscadello di Montalcino

The Moscadello di Montalcino is a traditional white wine from Montalcino, produced in the same area as the famous Brunello, but made from white Moscato grapes. It has a pale yellow color, and its bouquet is characteristically fresh, delicate and persistent. The taste of the Moscadello di Montalcino is sweet and aromatic. This is a dessert wine, and our suggestion for pairing it with the Pecorino, Pears and Honey is perfect for this vino.

The Moscadello is also produced as a sparkling wine, with the same characteristics of the still wine, but with a delicate and lively froth.

A special kind "vendemmia tardiva" (late vintage) is produced

with grapes partially withered, picked in the vineyard starting from the first of October of each year, which are then subjected to a further withering. The color of this wine varies from pale to golden yellow; the smell is delicate, and the taste is quite harmonic. The late vintage Moscadello di Montalcino has a compulsory aging of 12 months, starting from the first of January following the year of the vintage. This is a truly special dessert wine.

The Model City of Pienza

Pope Pius II, founder of Pienza

The history of Pienza is quite an interesting one. The town was originally know as Corsignano, and was a humble village until its most famous son, Enea Silvio de'Piccolomini, a well known poet, philosopher and politician, was elected Pope in 1458. A year later, Pius II hired Bernardo Rossellino to redesign the entire village of Corsignano.

The Piccolomini family were originally a powerful Sienese clan, forced to seek exile in Corsignano, one of their possessions, during a turbulent period in the politics of Renaissance Siena. No one is quite sure why Pius, born in Corsignano in 1405, was compelled to create a model city from his humble birthplace, but he was, and he hired the architect Rossellino to do the job. Another mystery that surrounds the birth of Pienza is the motivation of the architect: did Rossellino set out to build an original model city, a monument to Pius, or a faithful recreation of his patron's dreams? No one is quite sure. What we do know is that the town was built as a model example of classic Renaissance architecture. It is said that Rossellino was caught embezzling funds from the construction of the town, but Pius II forgave him because he was so pleased with the results of the architect's work.

Set in a gorgeous archetypal Tuscan landscape, Pienza, christened so by Pius after his Papal name, draws visitors with Rosellino's monuments to Pius II that form the core of this model city: its central piazza, the Duomo, and the Papal Palace.

Piazza Pio II

All the major sights in Pienza sit here, on Rosellino's famous piazza. The piazza itself is elegantly proportional, and appears simple in design. The piazza itself speaks much more to the tastes of the early, rather than the middle or later, Renaissance, in that the Piazza Pio was clearly designed to be much more of a place where citizens could carry out their daily lives, rather than an impressive and perhaps grandiose statement.

The Duomo

Rosellino built the Douomo in 1459. It is best known for the golden light that floods it through its many and vast stained glass windows. Pius II specifically requested these windows, because he wanted a domus vitrea, "a house of glass," to symbolize the Humanistic Age's spirit of intellectual enlightenment.

Rosellino himself carved an altar and baptismal font in the lower church, and the cathedral also features works by several well known Sienese artists. Sano di Pietro, Matteo di Giovanni, Vecchietta and Giovanni di Paolo all contributed altar pieces.

Pius II issued a papal bull in 1462 that expressly forbids changing anything in the interior of the Duomo. Sadly, the Duomo itself is in great danger, since it has been suffering from subsidence almost since it was built.

The Duomo is open daily, except Tuesday. Recent hours were 10-1 and 3-6. There is a charge for admission.

Palazzo Piccolomini

The Palazzo Piccolomini sits nest to the Cathedral on Piazza Pio and was home to various members of the Piccolomini family almost continuously until 1968. It is now open to visitors. Leon Battista Alberti's designs for the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence were Rosellolino's inspriation for the palazzo.

Among the favorites sights of visitors to Pienza is the ornate and arcaded courtyard at the rear of the palazzo. There you will find a three-story loggia that overlooks a hanging garden at the edge of a cliff. The views from here to the wooded slopes of Monte Amiata are not to be missed.

The Palazzo Piccolomini is open to visitors from Tuesday through Sunday. Hours vary with the season, so be sure to check. There is a charge for admission.