Food & Drink: Welsh cure for a Sardinian cheese: Giovanni Irranca found retirement boring, so he took up making pecorino, writes Emily Green

RETIREMENT bored Giovanni Irranca. So when he gave up running a parade of foodshops 10 months ago at the age of 64, he took up cheese-making: ricotta and several different cures of pecorino. And very respectable cheeses they are, too. These are yet more exotic foodstuffs from the fecund Italian nation-state called Wales. However, unlike so many Welsh-Italians - the ice-cream makers, the owners of the Bracchi cafes, even the Berni brothers - Mr Irranca is not from Bardi in the province of Parma. He is Sardinian, from the mountainous Santu-Lussurgiu.

He has black-brown eyes and olive skin, the sort imprinted on Sardinians during centuries of Arab and Spanish rule, but none of the heat- struck islanders' fondness for doing things domani. He is happiest in motion: going, coming, doing, dealing.

At the age of 27, he left for Wales. Why? 'Adventure,' he says.

Adventure meant work. By 1963, he had his first business, a fish and chip restaurant in Clydach, in the Swansea Valley. Soon a bakery and take-away followed, each next to the other. The parade was nicknamed 'Giovanni Square'. It sounds merrier than it looks. It faces a cemetery, behind which looms a huge nickel plant. 'There used to be lots of widows here,' he says. Then two things happened. The plant wound down and safety conditions improved.

He paid his loans so promptly, he says, the bank trusted him. By 1974, he had bought a farmhouse in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, and embarked on an elaborate conversion: laying marble floors, covering walls with lovely ceramic tiles, digging in a vineyard and garden, erecting a greenhouse. The house overlooks a large valley, on to steep mountainsides. Long scars running down the hillsides from decades of mining are finally healing with the decline of the coal industry. The Welsh valleys, he says, will be green again.

Mr Irranca needs his large home. He and his wife, Louisa, have had six children and (soon) three grandchildren. During my visit, his daughter cradled a newborn child. He held it easily, an old hand.

He is also a bit of an old fox. Thirteen years ago, he did not warn his wife he was going to buy the 203-acre Cwm Cyrnach farm. He snapped it up at auction. Her fury at the revelation is now a family joke. Though the estate is ravishingly beautiful, she refused to move to it, so he quickly sold the farmhouse.

But he built up the farm. He keeps cattle and breeds Limousin bulls He has 550 sheep, some 150 of which are milkers. The next logical step was to go into cheesemaking. He enlarged an old cooling house, transforming it into a small dairy. Here, he and a trained dairyman Geoff Mycock rigged a pumping system from the milking parlour. It feeds the milk straight to a cooling tank, then on to cheese-making vats.

The choice to make pecorino was straightforward enough: it ran in the family. 'My grandfather and my father used to make cheese, pecorino mostly,' he says. In fact, while varieties of pecorino, a ewe's milk cheese, are made throughout Italy, the Sardinian version, pecorino sardo, is particularly admired. There are different varieties, all of which Mr Irranca now makes and calls Cwmtawe Pecorino Gallese (Welsh Pecorino): a young one, aged only several weeks, which is fresh and soft; a harder cheese, aged up to six months, for eating by the slice; and a harder one yet, aged nine months to three years, for grating.

Like the sardo cheese, there are several different cures, including smoked and wine-soaked. Moreover, pecorino gallese includes a new variety: Mr Irranca is experimenting with a laverbread cheese.

Traditionally, making pecorino goes hand in hand with making ricotta, which takes its curd off the whey. Mr Irranca's ricotta is excellent - fluffy and fresh tasting. It was only a matter of time before the Italian chef, Franco Taruschio, caught wind of the new cheese-making operation, and began to patronise it.

Mr Taruschio and his wife, Ann, have run the Walnut Tree Inn in Llandewi Skirrid, Gwent, for more than 25 years. To my mind, they are among the very best restaurateurs in Britain. I asked Mr Taruschio if he might contribute two recipes, one with ricotta, the other pecorino. He kindly obliged.

The pecorino bread is very rich, rather like a brioche. Testing the recipe, I had the assistance of a skilled French baker and chef, Richard Bertinet, of the Rhinefield House Hotel, near Brockenhurst, Hampshire. More aptly, he had my assistance. Most of the cooking notes are his. This bread is also good with an egg wash sprinkled with dried oregano.

Both recipes have been tested with Cwmtawe cheese; however, if these are unavailable, pecorino and ricotta from an Italian delicatessen should work. If young, soft pecorino is unavailable, use grated cheese.

Cheese Bread

Serves 6

Ingredients: 1tsp sea salt

1tsp freshly ground pepper

450g (1lb) strong white flour

50g (1.7oz) fresh yeast

60ml (2fl oz) olive oil

120ml (4fl oz) lukewarm water

4 medium eggs

60g (2oz) grated hard pecorino

60g (2oz) grated parmesan

115g (4oz) cubed soft pecorino

Preparation: The trick is mixing in each ingredient well before you add the next. Work with your hands, which will be tacky at first. Weigh out flour and place in large bowl. Rub yeast between your palms so it crumbles finely into the flour (the fresher the yeast, the more easily it should crumble), then rub it throughout the flour. Add salt and pepper. Mix well. Gradually add water, mixing constantly. Whisk four eggs, add gradually to dough, mixing well. Add oil. Mix well. By now the dough is coming together. As you mix it, throw it to the bottom of the bowl. Lightly dust counter and continue kneading, picking up the dough and throwing it down, folding the bottom around as you trap air in it. Knead vigorously for at least 10 minutes. You should have a supple, pretty dough. Put in a floured bowl and cover with a lightly dampened tea towel. Allow to rise in a warm (but not hot) place for about an hour, until it doubles in size.

Generously grease the base and sides of two bread tins or one large cake tin with olive oil. Using the palms of your hands, gently flatten out dough into a large rectangle. If using bread tins, make two smaller rectangles. Now take the soft pecorino, which should be diced into small cubes, about the size of peas. Sprinkle over dough, gently roll it up and place in tin. Allow to rise again for another 45 minutes to an hour. It should more or less double in size.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 230C/450F/Gas 8. Bake the dough on a lower middle rack. Put it in quickly in order not to lose too much heat, then reduce the temperature immediately to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Bake 30 minutes for bread tins, 40 minutes for a large tin. Turn out of pan. Return to the oven upside down, and without pan bake for another five minutes. Cool on rack.

Ricotta Ice-Cream

Serves 8

Ingredients: 500ml (17oz) milk

5 egg yolks

200g (7oz) ricotta

200g (7oz) caster sugar

250ml cream

1/2 pod fresh vanilla

Preparation: This is a delicious ice- cream, in which the taste of ricotta is subtle but true. It requires an ice- cream maker; for small machines, halve the recipe.

Slit open vanilla pod, scrape out seeds with a rounded knife point, and add seeds and pod to milk and cream in saucepan. Heat. In another heavy saucepan, beat the egg yolks and sugar together. Remove pod and add heated milk and cream. Return mixture to a medium heat and gently stir until mixture coats the back of a wooden spoon. Remove from heat and leave to stand until mixture reaches room temperature. Beat in ricotta with a balloon whisk, then churn in an ice- cream machine. Serve with grated chocolate, or peaches with marsala.

Cwmtawe Cheeses: 0792-844637. They are also available from the trade counter of Abergavenny Fine Food Ltd, Unit 4, Castle Meadow's Park, Abergavenny, Gwent NP7 7RZ (0873-850001) from pounds 3.90/lb or from G T Jenkins, 50 The High Street, Cowbridge, South Glamorgan (0446-773545).

Franco and Ann Taruschio will publish their first cookbook, Leaves from the Walnut Tree, in September (Pavilion, pounds 15.99). The Walnut Tree Inn is in Llandewi Skirrid, Gwent (0873-852797).

(Photograph omitted)

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