Lunigiana Cheese Aged for Two Thousand Years

The Local Food of An Ancient Roman City
The Plains of Luni Still Offer Cheese & 
Milk to the World 

The cities  of Luni, Lucca and Pisa on the Tabula Peutingeriana - 1265 A.D. 
Between the Ligurian city of Sarzana and the Tuscan border at Carrara, there is a wide grassy plain separating the Apuan Alps from the sea. Here you can choose what you see. Will you see fields of bright green grass stretching into the distance, with a sprinkling of exercising Ligurians? Or perhaps you will see a kilometer of stone houses, two gleaming marble temples, a Roman forum, a huge amphitheater, and tens of thousands of Romans going about their famously chaotic business. This plain was the city of Luni for over a thousand years, and renowned in the Roman empire for its timber, marble, wine, and cheese. Luckily, today you can sample the local cheese as well as visit the ruins of Luni (especially the amphitheater at 10:30 & 17:30) - Archeological Park & Museum Link.

Luni Moon, San Pietro Church Avenza (Carrara) 1187 AD
Luni Moon, San Pietro Church
Avenza (Carrara) 1187 AD
Ancient Cheese  The cheese of Luni was made in wheels that weighed 1,000 Roman pounds (that's 650 modern pounds) and shipped to other parts of the empire bearing the crescent moon symbol of Luni. For comparison, those big uncut rounds of Parmigiano* you covet in the gastronomia weigh a mere 85 pounds. There are few historical facts available about Luni's cheese, but the size of the wheels leads to the conclusion that it was made with cow's milk. The grazing area needed suggests that more of the Magra Valley than just Luni was involved, and given the long established connections between Lunigiana and Emilia, cheesy archaeologists have written that Luni's cheese was a forerunner of today's Grana and Parmigiano style cheeses.** Since there's evidence that the Ligurian tribes knew how to make cheese, the Romans may have capitalized on local skills when they conquered Luni in 177 B.C. They apparently knew a good thing, for in the first
century A.D., the Roman poet Martial endorsed at least the portion size with the snappy slogan: "The cheese marked with the moon will offer innumerable meals to your children."

Fresh cheese from the plains of Luni.  Tenuta di Marinella
Fresh cheese from the plains of Luni.  Tenuta di Marinella.

Modern Cheese  Enough ancient history - time to eat. You can enjoy a relatively small portion of Luni cheese just by visiting La Butega della Tenuta di Marinella (the store of the Marinella plantation) with money in your pocket. Located in the Marinella frazione of Sarzana along the coastal road SS432, this store offers several cheeses that originated as blades of grass on the plain of Luni. This miraculous transformation happens at the Fattoria di Marinella (Marinella farm) where 680 Italian Friesian cows - the same breed that today creates the milk for Parmigiano - munch exclusively on feed raised on the plain of Luni. The cheeses to try are:
  • La Ricotta This fresh cheese is clean tasting with a burst of clear dairy flavor. Absolutely the best ricotta we've ever tasted. Here's a recipe you'll might try: Peas with Baked Ricotta & Bread Crumbs.  Call before a special trip - the ricotta's freshness can limit availability.
  • PrimaLuna Il Fresco is a fresh, semi-hard cheese: mild flavor, medium density, melts well.
  • Portoro Lo Stagionato is also a semi-hard cheese but more aged : denser and with a somewhat sharper taste but still mild.
La Butega also sells wine and numerous specialty food products, along with more dairy products, milk, butter, and a yogurt that gets rave reviews. 

Statue of Carlo Fabbriccotti, 'Carlaz', by Lazzerini
Statue of Carlo Fabbricotti, 'Carlaz'.
Tenuta di Marinella  The plantation itself is a uniquely Italian establishment. Purchased in 1865 by Carlo Fabbricotti - called Carlaz - and then passed to his son Carlo Andrea Fabbricotti in 1910 along with 66 quarries. The Tenuta has provided employment and farm products ever since. The land is 380 hectares (about 1,000 acres) almost all dedicated to dairy farming. The quadrangle of buildings inherited from previous owners of the Tenuta were supplemented between 1865 and 1926 to reflect the social trends of the times. You can enter the Tenuta and drive or walk around the small enclave to get a feel for this unrestored prototype of a planned agricultural community.

The Fabbricotti were generally community minded industrialists - the family had quarried Carrara marble since the 1700's - and they really helped improve the area. They did not join other big industrialists in rabid opposition to workers organizing in the quarries. They enabled the draining of area swamps, began the excavation of the ruins of Luni and preserved and collected its treasures, helped preserve the Monastery of Santa Croce at Bocca di Magra, and did numerous other good deeds. Carlaz is buried in the family mausoleum on the grounds of the Tenuta, and you can admire his jaunty statue there. It is from 1913 by Carrara sculptor Alessandro Lazzerini.

The roads through the fields of the Tenuta are open to all for recreation and offer greenery and mountain views. Many local Italians use these roads for exercise and just plain strolling. The easiest access point is marked on our map below.

La Butega della Tenuta di Marinella. Cheese from Luni.
La Butega della Tenuta di Marinella. Cheese from Luni.
More Details

We have a Google map for places mentioned in this article: Shopping in Sarzana Map - Along the Aurelia

La Butega della Tenuta di Marinella, Via Litoraneo 21, Marinella di Sarzana  0187-649503. Via Litoraneo is the shore road, SS432, and the Butega is on the opposite side from the beaches.

Parco Archeologico di Antica Citta di Luni Information page in Italian for the Luni Archaeological Park and Museum. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 8:30 - 19:30, 2 Euro.

Tenuta di Marinella - the complex is located inland from the shore road, and while there's not a lot to see, the buildings collectively suggest an agricultural and social milieu that is long gone.

*Parmesan is the French word for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and use of the word is defensible only in France. It's bad enough that we English speakers use Renaissance (French) instead of Rinascimento (Italian).

** Information from L'Alimentazione nell'Italia Antica by Filippo Maria Gambari, Marica Venturino Gambari.