Saturday was to be The Day Of The Ricotta.
Friday afternoon we went ona little venture to organize the milk. In the Sicilian countryside this is not as quick as it may seem. We are shown the cows. There are small gambolling calfs and large cynical mothers who regard us through half open eyes as they methodically chew their cud. Next we are taken inside where the farmers wife pulls a bottle of limoncello from the cupboard and puts out little plastic cups. It is only four in the afternoon, but you dont serve coffee this late in the day. And so we sit sipping on the tartly sour lemon liquer as we are shown photos of their children as babies and told that they have relatives in Australia and ask Miki how it is going on her farm. We tell them that we are going to make ricotta tomorrow and they nod solemnly. The farmer looks like you would imagine a typical Italian farmer to look. Large belly, larger apron and a booming voice. Apon hearing that I am a chef he promptly tells Miki that he would like me to come and stay at his house, just for one day, to teach his wife to cook. His wife hits him around the head. We leave a huge plastic bottle for the early morning milking the next day and head back to the farm.
The Day Of The Ricotta dawns. After a hot sweet black coffee and a bowl of yoghurt with homegrown oranges we head out to do some work before the ricotta making begins. There is a lot to do on the farm. This morning we are finishing varnishing the house of the donkeys. This involves climbing a ladder balanced somewhat precariously on a large several feet above the ground while Dylis holds the ladder in place and I use one hand to to paint, the other to hold myself steady using a nearby tree branch. After the top of the little cabin is varnished to within an inch of its life we get the news.
The milk has arrived.. The house I am staying in is over 200 years old, renovated and tastefully decorated. There is a large open kitchen, windows looking out over the vegetable garden. The countertops are sicilian handpainted ceramique blasted onto huge sleps of lava stone from etna. There are huge polished wooden drawers with a smooth tile floor and a little wood burning stove. Their are forget-me-not blue lace curtains crocheted by the amazing and multi-talented Gueseppina. For me it is a dream kitchen. But this is not where we will be making the ricotta.
Enter the laundry. This is where the ricotta has been made for an age. There is a large ring gas burner atop which is placed an enormous pot filled with the fresh milk. Stage one involves waiting. We wait as the milk comes to temperature. As we wait we are shown what the ricotta is traditionally shaped in. Little handwoven baskets. But they are not used anymore due to hygiene reasons but nevertheless still adorn the walls of the room. Standing around the slowly heating milk are seven of us. Miki and Sylvio. Our hosts. Miki’s mother Guesepina, peering expertly through her glasses at the pot. Dylis and Peter, my fellow woofers. They are from Cape Cod in American where they passionately (and successfully) grow vegetables despite their soil being made almost entirely from sand. Lucia, the maid. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there is a maid. But not in the regular sense. Rather she is a friend who comes round twice a week to give their big old home a thorough cleaning. Apon arriving she is invited in, sat down with a cup of tea whereapon her and Miki have a half an hour conversation before she cleans the bejusus out of the house. Not that it isnt always spotless, anyway. But besides helping them clean apparently when ricotta making time comes around Lucia helps with the cheese making. She makes it at her own house and each time they are comparing techniques and tips. And me. The cheese-loving chef from Australia who is about to see ricotta being made for the first time.
The rennet is added and once the milk is brought slowly to 40 degrees a lid is placed atop, the heat is turned off and we all file out to go set the table. Setting the table today does not just involve placing glasses and plates, cutlery and a bottle of wine. Sylvio pulls a large sausage shaped hunk of cured meat reverently from the fridge and with great precision begins to carve it in wafer thin slices. He asks me if I know bresaola, the cured meat in question. I do. It is wonderful indeed. He asks me if I know carpaccio. I do. But I know it as seared (or totally raw) beef sliced paper thin and topped with oil, shaved parmesan, pepper and rocket. He explains that originally carpaccio was made with bresaola, the cured meat he is currently slicing. This I did NOT know…
We squeeze lemon all over the bresaola, drizzle with olive oil from their farm and a good grating of black pepper. Several layers later we sprinkle with shaved parmesan and place on the table. Photo’s are taken. And with that we all head back to the cheese making room.
The milk has set into a jelly like consistency. The jelly is first sliced into pieces inside the pot and then stirred. The heat is back and and once again we watch the slowly heating milk. Lucia is stirring, stirring. Boiling hot water is poured into the continuesly stirred milk. Now the contents of the pot have turned opaque instead of white and the time is near. Minutes later Lucia reaches her arms into the pot and pulls from deep within the liquid a soft white cheese. But, we learn, this is not the ricotta. Ricotta in Italian, literally means ‘recooked’ and is a method for extracting further cheese from the whey, the leftover liquid… I never knew that! The first cheese, the curd that is here called Tuma is pulled apart and placed into tubs.
We are all given chunks in bowls with plastic spoons and taste the still warm curd. It is quite soft but a little bland. A good base for making things, i think. Nevertheless it is delicious. Like slightly chewy warm milk. Now the ricotta begins. The liquid is heated for the third time. We take turns stirring and Lucia checks the consistency with her spoon from time to time. She takes a spoonfull and pours it back into the pot from a height. Miki and Sylvio have a thermometer but Lucia can see by sight. Or so it seems. Once the milk reaches about 60 degrees in goes 5 litres of cold milk, a glass of lemon juice and the salt. Again we wait. The pressure builds. There are murmers in Italian. What is wrong, we ask. It seems to be taking too long. Wait, wait, says Lucia. The tension in the room becomes palpable as ‘tiny tiny ricotta’ begins to form on the surface of the liquid. Small beads solidying whiteness. But is is enough? This pot is aluminium and it is much better to use stainless, they say. Lucia looks nervous. Gueseppina kneels down, almost eye to eye with the top of the pot and nods. The bead become bigger. Its forming! Suddenly everyone is yelling and hugging each other and yelling Ricotta! Ricotta! Just as quickly silence falls as we see Lucia’s face. Perhaps we cheered to soon. It still may not come good. Now the tension is like the set milk. You could slice it with a knife. You could put it on a plate and watch it wobble… The whole surface begins to coagulate and gently, gently, Lucia pulls the curd inwards and it continues to form. And yes. It is ok. A collective sigh of release. We take turns lifting the soft warm ricotta into little draining pots where the water slips away and more portions are served out which we ferry to the table. And we sit and eat a bowl of hot ricotta with fresh bread. It is soft and slightly salty and oh-so decadant. To be sitting at a table and eating a bowl of fresh cheese. Those of us that eat meat dive into the carpaccio and everyone sips on local wine and after we eat homemade almond biscotta with sweet moscatto.
Ah warm ricotta, it is nice to meet you…
Note: my camera is out of action so all photos are courtesy or Longneck Road Productions, my fellow wwoofer Peter.