Saturday 8. May 2021
#183 - June 2015


“Sacred cows” in Castel Gandolfo?


It is a well-known fact that Castel Gandolfo is the Pope’s summer residence, but few people are aware that it is also a place where cows graze and cheese is made. This is a report from a voyage of discovery.

When the Secretary-General of the European Dairy Association (EDA) asked COMECE earlier this year whether it would be possible to arrange a visit to the fattoria pontifice, the papal dairy operations at Castel Gandolfo, we had to admit that we did not know it existed. Following e-mail exchanges with the Papal Nuncio and the press office of the Vatican, we obtained some information on it: not only does the fattoria exist, but official visits are even welcomed there. So every effort was made to arrange our visit, which finally took place on 7 May 2015.


The background to the visit was neither pure professional curiosity nor pure entertainment, but a serious question. As the Holy See issues increasingly frequent statements on ecological issues, and as the first Encyclical on ecology and climate change is expected this summer, how does the Holy See manage its own agricultural operations? Do they comply with organic farming standards? The following impressions were gained from the visit by EDA Secretary-General Alexander Anton, himself a ‘dairy professional’.


A papal dairy farm

Castel Gandolfo is a short hour’s drive to the south of Rome along the Via Appia, above Lake Albano. Here Dr Alessandro Reali runs a dairy farm with 34 milk cows and a six-stall milking parlour, which is roughly equivalent to the average size of a typical Bavarian dairy farm. The daily milk yield of around 1,000 kg is processed on site into cheese, fresh milk, butter and yoghurt, which is usual for a dairy farm of this size.


This dairy farm and processing plant, built in 1930, also includes the raising of around 500 chickens, the management of an old olive grove, cultivation of vegetable and flower gardens and the rearing of some beef cattle. What makes this farm different from other agricultural businesses is the fact that it is part of the 55 ha estate of the Pope’s summer residence, together with the Villa Barberini and the wonderful terraced gardens of the Belvedere. Furthermore, the milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt produced here are delivered direct from the fattoria to the Vatican.


We don’t need a Biolabel –  we still work here in the same way my father did, which means a ‘super-organic’ classification would be needed for our produce,” says the manager of the papal fattoria, Alessandro Reali, at a tasting of the three types of cheese produced here (ricotta, mozzarella and hard cheese). “The high quality standards we apply to our products and production methods can only be maintained if we keep full control of all stages of the process. Nevertheless, we operate on an economic basis and also buy in a certain proportion of our dairy produce from commercial sources,” Reali adds.


The cows are kept in a modern, open pen and are fed almost exclusively on home-produced hay and silage. The exposed location at 400m above sea level, with the Mediterranean only 40km away, means that the cows can remain reasonably comfortable even on the hottest days. The dairy is not really very different from other similar or much larger dairy-producing operations –both production techniques and the stainless steel equipment are appropriately scaled to the quantities handled.


The operating philosophy of the whole fattoria with its various agricultural and food production activities and a 20-strong workforce is a very practical illustration of how the concept of “human ecology” is based on respect for nature as Creation and on awareness of the place of mankind within that Creation (Alexander Anton, Secretary-General, EDA).


During his visit, this secular agricultural representative was struck by how clean the cows were and by the almost tangible peaceful and relaxed atmosphere of the milking parlour. The specialists told me that this is the result of the calm, respectful way the animals are handled. The dairy cows are not viewed merely as “high-yield production units” to be utilised to full capacity, but as living beings worthy of full care and consideration.


In this context it is interesting to note that the EDA Secretary-General has placed “The ethics of animal husbandry” on the agenda of a breakout session for the next annual general meeting in the autumn. One of the topics for discussion will certainly be whether and how to transfer this “ecologically sensitive husbandry”, which works in an average-sized operation like the fattoria, over to a huge operation involving more than a thousand head of cattle. As became clear during the visit, this question is becoming increasingly important due to pressure from critical consumers. It is a good thing when industry and theology come together to debate such issues.


Michael Kuhn



Translated from the original text in German

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