The province of Belluno, area of origin for Piave cheese, is the northernmost tip of the Veneto region, wedged between Trentino Alto Adige to the northwest and Friuli to the east. This zone is dominated by some of the most famous and awe-inspiring peaks of the Dolomite mountains: from Pelmo to Civetta, from Cristallo to Antelao, from the Tofane to Marmolada, “magical” mountains at the foot of which extend ancient forests and green valleys rich in pastures. The Dolomites are hard, difficult mountains where, over the centuries, given the difficulties of cultivating the intensive crops typical of the plains, the natural vocation of agriculture has become dairy cattle breeding.
Characterised by a rigid climate with abundant snowy precipitation during the winter months and by cool, short summers, the Belluno area is representative of the typical alpine environment, also in terms of the character of the population, who are proud of their traditions passed down from generation to generations through experience and oral narrative.
The start of large scale dairy cattle breeding in Belluno, in particular of the Bruna Alpina (Brown Swiss) breed, coincided with the end of the intensive exploitation of the woodlands, during the decline of the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia (Most Serene Republic of Venice), which controlled a large part of the provincial territory of Belluno. At that time, dairy cattle breeding by small mountain owners and valley floor sharecroppers was considered to be the most valid and natural production alternative for the fragile Belluno rural economy, crushed by the crisis of the Serenissima.
In more recent times, starting from the end of the 19th century, in relation to the industrial revolution in the great nations of central Europe, the Belluno area, like many other mountain areas in Italy, was hit with the serious economic crisis leading to the phenomenon of emigration and the consequent depopulation of the territory. In order to deal with the massive exodus and the resulting dramatic socio-economic degrade, on January 8, 1872 in one of Belluno’s valleys, precisely in Canale d’Agordo, at the initiative of the local parish priest, don Antonio Della Lucia, an absolutely new form of joint management of the few resources provided by dairy cattle breeding was born: it was the first social cooperative dairy of the newly constituted Regno d’Italia (Kingdom of Italy), called kasèl in the local Belluno dialect, but more commonly known as a “latteria turnaria” (cooperative dairy) .
In every small town in the Belluno mountains, the idea of grouping together the small breeders in the town to process the milk “in shifts” at a single “casello” (cooperative dairy), thus obtaining a reduction in production costs and greater earnings, became popular in those difficult years, significantly contributing to the birth of the local dairy and cheese making traditions while providing a valid work alternative to the dramatic destiny of emigration.
With the passing of time, especially following WWII, with the socio-economic developments of the period, many of these small businesses where hit by crisis and destined to close; however, still today, in many of the Belluno mountain towns we can find traces of those first operative dairies that produced butter, the so-called “dairy cheese”, a fresh cheese with an intense milky flavour and cooked curd cheeses for short or medium periods of aging.
In other cases, the local dairy farmers resisted and once again formed groups, extending the social base of the cooperatives to include dairy farmers from nearby towns and constituting larger cooperative dairies with greater power to cope with the market imbalance between mountain and plains agriculture.
Today, in the Belluno territory, these cooperatives, together with other structures, namely the “malghe” (alpine farmsteads) or, in the local dialect “maiolere”, are not only the vehicle for passing on the ancient rules for the cheese making arts, respectfully applied to the production of typical local cheeses, they are also businesses of indisputable socio-economic importance.
Similarly, we cannot overlook the fundamental role these structures play in protecting the environment, by maintaining and developing the territory: in fact, the presence of man in the mountains with his traditional agricultural and silvopastoral activities has always guaranteed the conservation of a natural balance, the key to the very survival of the environment itself.