Italian Cheese Lovers Find Their Bovine Match Through 'Adopt A Cow' : The Salt The cheeses of the Italian Alps are prized for their flavor. But the tradition of cheese-making here is dying off. Now remaining farmers are banding together around an unusual adoption program.
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Italian Cheese Lovers Find Their Bovine Match Through 'Adopt A Cow'

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Italian Cheese Lovers Find Their Bovine Match Through 'Adopt A Cow'

Italian Cheese Lovers Find Their Bovine Match Through 'Adopt A Cow'

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Some of the great cheeses of the world are made by hand in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Cows that have grazed alongside the mountains are said to produce a uniquely delicious product. But the traditional, small-scale production and few opportunities for export is not really a great business model. And Alpine cheese makers had been slowly disappearing - that is, until several farmers banded together with the help of the Internet and came up with an unusual adoption program. Christopher Livesay explains.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: It's kind of like Internet dating.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

LIVESAY: Mery is the first to catch my eye, about 5' 10", outdoorsy, vegetarian. Oh, yeah, we definitely seem compatible. And the website says she's available.

(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)

LIVESAY: She also happens to be an Italian Simmental, a dairy cow that's native to the Alps. For just 60 Euros, I can meet her. But I have to drive 360 miles from Rome to the Sugana Valley, a rural enclave in the northeastern Trentino region. Mery lives with Francesco Lenzi at his hilltop homestead.

FRANCESCO LENZI: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: Mery.

LENZI: Mery.

LIVESAY: Hi, Mery. How are you? She's shy. Can I pet you? Chao, hi, there. Mery is part of a program called Adopt A Cow. Ilaria Sordo came up with it in college 10 years ago.

ILARIA SORDO: (Through interpreter) Every family here used to have their own livestock. But in the 1950s and '60s, people started working in factories and office buildings. We got used to seeing pastures just abandoned with no cows. Our traditions were dying, so I came up with Adopt A Cow.

LIVESAY: The local tourism department hired Sordo to launch the program, which since its inception has grown from a few dozen annual adoptions to nearly 1,000 this past year alone. Here's how it works. My adoption fee also gets me 60 Euros worth of assorted cheeses made from Mery's milk. She produces some 15 liters a day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILKING MACHINE)

LIVESAY: That's not what you think. A stable hand is hooking up a milking machine to Mery's utters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILKING MACHINE)

LENZI: (Through interpreter) This is raw milk, milked this evening from the best cows, not pasteurized.

LIVESAY: We both take a sip.

(Speaking Italian). That's delicious.

Lenzi wipes off his milk moustache and grabs some cheese from a rack, then bangs it out of its plastic mold to check the aging process.

LENZI: (Through interpreter) If it sounds hollow, it's no good. You have to tap on them to see.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING)

LENZI: (Through interpreter) This one is good, but it's too soon. It needs more time.

LIVESAY: Now, you might be thinking, OK, cute idea. But do I really have to go to the middle-of-nowhere Italy to collect my cheese? Can't they just mail it to me? Actually, they can't. These are small farms that can't afford the export fees. So rather than bringing the product to the consumer, Adopted A Cow brings the consumer to the product.

KATIE PARLA: That's brilliant. And what that probably also guarantees them, or at least entices from their neighbors, is more investment.

LIVESAY: Katie Parla writes about food in Italy for The New York Times.

PARLA: So if these great cheese producers are attracting people to Trentino, well, then the neighboring wine producer's going to want to get in on that too. And then, the cured meat producer down the street is going to want in on that. And then that creates a critical mass of people invested in the region.

LIVESAY: For Lenzi and his family, that's meant selling their entire annual stock.

LENZI: (Through interpreter) Without Adopt A Cow, we would've lost money in 2014. Instead, it's been a good year. There's money to be made in quality cheese.

LIVESAY: Which brings us to a crucial point. Is this cheese really that good? Again, Katie Parla.

PARLA: So I'm unwrapping. It has a really nice smell, a little bit of nuttiness there. I'm going to cut off a little bit. It's sort of free-able in a way. So it has this really rich, nutty flavor. I mean, the cheese is delicious.

LIVESAY: Did you hear that, Mery?

(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)

LENZI: Mery. Mery. Bella.

LIVESAY: The Lenzi family couldn't be prouder. And as Mery's new adoptive father, neither could I. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay.

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