Ruzzola! Italy’s Cheese Rolling Competition

Maria Vallorani instructing a newbie in cheese rolling.
Maria Vallorani instructing a newbie in cheese rolling.

The National Cheese Rolling competition!

By Cindy-Lou Dale
Senior Writer

He’s seriously psyched up as he wraps a long stretch of fibrous cord around a 30cm ball of hard cheese. The smoke from the cigar, wedged into the corner of his mouth, necessitated that he close one eye.

His other eye accessed the camber of the road ahead. He took a couple of long strides to build up momentum, leaned his ample frame forward, and with a curved slingshot motion (delivered in an elegant pirouette), launched his wheel of cheese.

He leaned this way, then that way, grimaced – baring his teeth, closed his good eye, then quickly opened it again. In the distance, his cheese skittered along the surface of the black asphalt, telepathically following its curve. It rounded a bend, then settled on a grassy verge on the roadside.

I’m walking behind a group of farmers heading up a rural mountain road in Castel Di Lama (in the Marche region of Italy). Each man is carrying a scruffy-looking shoulder bag – and their cheese.

“They’re out practicing for the ‘Ruzzola’ national championships,” I’m told. “It’s a Pecorino cheese-rolling race.”

The purpose of Ruzzola is to projectile toss balls of cheese towards the goal, which was somewhere in Offida, a neighboring village.

The Origins of Ruzzola

The origins of the Ruzzola date back to medieval times. Most of the players were farmers and shepherds who would throw seasoned pecorino cheese along sloped grassy paths. Today it is recognized by the Italian Sport Federation which organizes numerous tournaments and events every year throughout the country.

The rules are simple – wrap the coarse string around the girth of the cheese then launch it by unwinding the string, with one end held in one hand. The method used is best described as playing yo-yo and ‘walking the dog’, then letting go to see how far it travels – that’s near enough to what Ruzzola is.

The aim is to reach a fixed point with the least possible number of launches. The winner is the one who managed to launch it the farthest.

Cheese in transit.
Cheese in transit.

Visiting a local sheep farm I learn about Pecorino cheese, which is hard and salty, and made of raw sheep’s milk.

Originally it was a staple in the diet of the legionaries of ancient Rome. Today, it is still made according to the original recipe and is one of Italy’s oldest cheeses.

Maria Vallorani, chairperson of the local Ruzzola team.
Maria Vallorani, chairperson of the local Ruzzola team.

The maturation process is an interesting one as the dry-salted cheese wheels are placed on wooden boards for a couple of days, giving it time to dry and form an outer skin.

Then they’re greased with olive oil that’s been flavored with local herbs. I’m told that adding herbs has a sanitizing action, eliminating bacterial flora present in milk, which adds powerful aromatic aromas.

They’re left to mature in a cold room for about twenty days – and up to a year for the aged variety. The shortly-aged version is softer and lighter, while the matured version is hard, greasy to the touch, and much darker in color.

The region of Marche has its own take on maturing its Pecorino. Here the cheese is aged for up to sixty days then, as was the custom of shepherds since the Roman times, the cheese wheels are wrapped in walnut leaves, placed into well-sealed oak barrels in which wine was once stored, and aged still further for around ninety days.

This gives it time to re-ferment, acquiring its characteristic taste and aroma.

Once removed from the wine barrels, the cheese is left to dry for about ten days, packaged in jute paper, and sold after a month. The result is a hard, mouth-watering, fat cheese with herbal aromas and a crumbly texture.

Pecorino with Cold Cuts

Fresh pecorino is considered table cheese and is served on its own or as an appetizer, with cold cuts. When aged it is used grated or flaked as an ingredient to enrich the taste of many traditional Italian dishes such as Cacio e Pepe, which the locals have down to a fine art.

Chef Daniele Citeroni at Michelin-starred Ophis in Offida gave me a few tips: cook spaghetti in just enough water to cover it and, using tongs (no draining or letting it drip dry), transfer the pasta to a second skillet containing a sauce made up of just two ingredients – coarsely ground black pepper, toasted in olive oil.

Once the pasta has been stirred around and is coated with pepper-infused olive oil, add the aged, finely grated (near powdered) Pecorino. Swirl it around a little, add a little more olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste, and top it off with a fistful of Pecorino.

Maria preppig her wheel of cheese for the event.
Maria prepping her wheel of cheese for the event.

“And the winning team?,” I asked Maria Vallorani, the chairperson of the local team, “what’s in it for them?”

“It’s the honour, I suppose, and the trophy,” said Maria. She contemplated her statement, then added “But this is Italy, there is a festival for everything, and no doubt there will be someone offering Maccheroncini di Campofilone pasta – a 600-year-old pasta particular to the region.

Its fine thin strands – often referred to as angel hair pasta – are made with a lot of eggs, durum wheat, and semolina flour, and melt in the mouth delicious. This comes with gratings of the winner’s cheese on top.”

I had visions of the 5km journey the cheese wheel would cover – and at the end of its travels, all the debris that may well be embedded into its hard crust. Bits of a squashed porcupine, chewing gum, cigarette butts, tire rubber, larks’ vomit…

Maria reads my facial expression and gives me a slow wink adding: “I’m sure they’ll wipe the cheese off with a kitchen towel first.”

Interesting nearby village: Offida

Offida, one of the prettiest villages in Italy.
Offida, one of the prettiest villages in Italy.

Offida (pop. around 5,000) is deemed one of Italy’s most beautiful towns. It overflows with tradition, and history just oozing from its 13th-century walls.

The compact Old Town center is amiable to stroll, with cobbled streets, appealing alleyways, striking architecture, and a burst of color. Top it all off with an old-world vibe, genuinely friendly locals, and great food.

The main triangular-shaped Piazza al Popolo is fringed by a Renaissance-style town hall, which is adorned with arcades and crenelations; the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta; and the town’s lavish 19th-century Serpente Aureo Theatre.

The renowned CiùCiù wine showroom in the heart of Offida’s old town. We’re here to savor traditional Marche wines.

As with most of Offida’s buildings, the one CiùCiù Wines is housed in is deceptively large. Inside it’s elegant, and historic, with enormous cellar rooms – ideal for a taste experience in both food and wine as their organic wines are combined with traditional Marche cheeses, cured hams, and olives – and wait till you sample their bruschetta dipped in their own grown extra virgin olive oil! The food/wine tasting will set you back around €8.00.

Recommended Accommodations

  • Pietra Antica, a pristinely renovated holiday farm consisting of stone buildings, massive views and an acclaimed restaurant in nearby Ripatransone. Double room rates start at €90.
  • Alternatively, Dimora Nel Borgo, a gorgeous B&B in the cobbled street historic centre of Offida. Double room rates start at €40.
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