The cheeses of Sicily

The cheeses of Sicily

By
Manuela Darling-Gansser
Contains
6 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740669030
Photographer
Simon Griffiths

One afternoon during my visit to Modica, as I was strolling down the Corso Umberto I, I spotted a tiny cheese shop. It was so small that if you weren’t looking carefully you would miss it. Inside the spotless, white-tiled shop was a refrigerated cabinet stocked with a range of local cheeses. As it turned out, this was the retail outlet of a local farm, and so, my curiosity aroused, I went to visit the farm the very next day.

We rose early – because like milking, cheese-making is done early in the day – and drove out of town onto a plateau of rolling hills. Farmhouses dotted the landscape and stone terraces and walls testified to the effort that had been put into the land over a long time. The fields themselves were covered in poppies. Others had been cut for hay and animals grazed on the crop stubble. It was a timeless scene of farms in late spring.

But once you have travelled through the Sicilian countryside for a while, you realise how unusual this picture really is. Because so much of the rural land has traditionally been held as vast estates by absentee owners, you don’t actually see large farmhouses very often. There are villages (for the estate workers), the occasional palazzo (for the landowner) but very few of the manor houses or groups of farm buildings that you associate with a prosperous family farm.

The countryside outside Modica is somewhat different, and is clearly populated by family farms. As we drove towards our destination we passed substantial two-storey houses, surrounded by high walls and a cluster of work buildings. Standing either side of the entrance would often be two date palms with their tall, straight trunks finishing in a burst of spreading fronds, which look for all the world like botanical fireworks. I don’t know why, historically, this area has developed differently from other parts of the country, but it does make you aware of the gap that exists in the social fabric elsewhere.

About fifteen kilometres out of Modica we arrived at the farm of the Lucifora family. Outside the dairy Salvatore Lucifora was looking after seventy or so milking cows. The farmyard was surrounded by terraces planted with grains, olive, almond and carob trees. Inside the dairy we found his wife Ornella and her cheese maker, Raimondo Blandino. Cheese making was in full swing, and had been since three o’clock that morning.

Cheese in Sicily is made from cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk. It is an ancient art – there are records of hard cheese being made in Roman times. Sicilian cheeses range from seasoned hard cheeses to delicate fresh ones, and everything in between. The most famous cheese made in Sicily, the most ‘tipico’, is ricotta. It is emblematic of the island and is the key ingredient in local specialties such as cassata and cannoli. In my view, it is hard to find a fresher or lighter cheese anywhere in the world.

For such an important cheese, it is fascinating to discover that ricotta is actually a by-product: it is made from the whey that is leftover from making other cheeses. Ricotta needs to be eaten fresh, so in the days before refrigeration it was only produced seasonally, not in the hot summer months. As a result, cheese makers developed techniques to preserve it, such as smoking, salting or baking. All these varieties are interesting cheeses, but without a doubt, the full ricotta experience can only be had from the super-fresh product.

It is traditional Sicilian hospitality to offer a guest a bowl of warm, fresh ricotta and this is what Ornella did. She spooned fresh ricotta into terracotta bowls and we ate it with fresh bread that had been quickly dipped into the water that drained from the cheese. This is the way ricotta has been eaten for centuries, and if you try it like this, you can see why it is so prized. Ricotta is delicious cooked or flavoured and sugared in cakes and pastries, but for me, the pure experience of eating fresh ricotta, untreated in any way, is unique.

Next door Raimondo was hard at work making Caciocavallo cheese. His arms were plunged up to the elbows in a vat of water, heated to 60–70°C, and he was kneading the cheese into a large ball. The kneading process lasted for about forty minutes until there were no air pockets left in the large round cheese. It was then ready to be soaked in brine for two or three days before being hung by its distinctive top-knot to mature. The finished cheeses have a medium–hard consistency and weigh between 16–17 kilograms.

A few days later I visited another cheese factory at Randazzo near Mount Etna. Here I watched another cheese maker, Santo La Mancusa, making his version of Caciocavallo. Santo was taught by his father, who had only just retired. While he himself is young (in his thirties), he told me that he worries that cheese-making skills are not being passed on anymore as young people find it too much work.

As well as Caciocavallo, Santo makes Tuma cheese (which is another medium–hard cheese that can be round or squared) and beautiful fresh ricotta.

The area around Modica and the nearby city of Ragusa is well known for the quality of its cheeses and the skill of its cheese makers. You get a feel for this if you visit Casa del Formaggio (the House of Cheese), an exceptional cheese shop in Modica, owned by Giorgio Cannata. As I entered the shop I was encouraged by a sign in the window, indicating that he was a Slow Food-approved retailer. The Slow Food movement started in Piemonte and has since spread all over Italy and around the world. It is dedicated to preserving the crafts of traditional food production and aims to encourage everything that mass-produced, standardised, homogenised food production is not. The Slow Food movement treats small-scale traditional cheesemakers as an endangered species – and they are right to do so. The organisation sends people out to record the special cheeses, to note how they are made, who are making them and which specialised retailers are selling them.

As soon as I walked into Giorgio’s shop I could tell he was passionate about his products. Most of the cheeses he stocks are Sicilian, the majority from the south of the island nearby. There is a huge range of Caciocavallo and Tuma cheeses, and many Pecorini and other hard, long-matured cheeses. There are ricottas that have been salted, smoked or baked and there are highly seasonal spring cheeses that can only be made when grasses are long and lush. At his suggestion we tried a selection of cheeses, but our favourite arrived in the middle of the tasting. It was a Formaggio Nero, a large cheese with a black rind that comes from the area inland from Agrigento and is only made in small amounts. It was semi-seasoned, lightly salted and totally delicious.

Believe it or not fresh ricotta is pretty simple to make. So if you can’t find it in a shop or market near you, or even if you can, you might like to try making it yourself. My friend Maria has a simple way to do it and I have included her recipe. She uses sheep’s milk, but it is also excellent when made with full-cream, pasteurised cow’s milk.

Once you have made fresh ricotta and tasted it with crusty bread, what are you going to cook with it? I have included some ricotta recipes earlier in the book, but there are a few more in this chapter for you to experiment with.

First, there is a wonderful savoury ricotta pie called torta rustica alla ricotta. The ricotta is mixed with salty pecorino cheese, eggs and ham. Although it is a little bit like a quiche, it is much lighter – that’s the great virtue of ricotta. It makes a delicious lunch with salad.

Ricotta is often used to add richness to other sauces and dishes, but also to lighten them. I particularly love meatballs made with ricotta because it gives them quite another consistency. Polpettine con ricotta (meatballs with ricotta) are light and tasty.

Some of the other Sicilian cheeses are also excellent to cook with so I have included two recipes, one using caciocavallo, the other pecorino. Caciu all' argintera (pan-fried cheese) uses caciocavallo to make a great antipasto dish. Carciofi ripieni (stuffed artichokes) combines pecorino with anchovies and capers – all sharp, salty flavours – and breadcrumbs to make a stuffing for tender young artichokes.

Cheese is not the only product of the Modica region. Chocolate is used often (a legacy of Spanish rule, introduced by them from South America), as are almonds. Superb almonds are grown near Avola on the nearby coast; in fact Avola almonds are said to be the best in Sicily. I have included a recipe that combines both these ingredients in a delectable crostata di amaretti e cioccolato (a tart made with an amaretti and chocolate filling).

Recipes in this Chapter

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