The Cooking School at Gangivecchio
The drive to Gangivecchio is golden. The mountain roads are edged in wheat. Bursts of turmeric-colored bushes surprise us as we make our ascent by car. Even the light falling across distant hilltops appears honey-colored.
It’s no wonder that some of the best caciocavallo we’ve tasted is served here, at a small inn and cooking school in the middle of the Madonie Mountains. The cheese is golden, too — the color of rich milk from animals grazing on nearby pastures.
The cheeses of the Madonie mountains are special, Giovanna Tornabene tells us proudly as she sets out a plate of caciocavallo (Kah-CHEE-oh-kah-vall-oh) on a green platter at her dining room table. Later her shepherd joins us, Salvatore Duca.
The two of them have worked out a good trade, Giovanna explains, her long gold earrings winking at us as she gives us a tour of the grounds, including a Benedictine abbey from the 14th century which is flanked by fruit trees and rose bushes. “I let the shepherd graze his animals on my land for free as long as he gives me fresh ricotta and caciocavallo.”
Caciocavallo is a traditional Sicilian cheese with an unusual shape: it looks like a water balloon. Bulbous, it’s made to air-dry in the sun, then travel by horseback down the mountain to market. When you see caciocavallo hanging in cheese shops, they are usually in pairs (originally, this was so they could be slung over a saddle). Look for them — they’re the size of boxing gloves.
One thing I love about this cheese is that its form derives from function. Even its name, caciocavallo, means “cheese on horseback.” It’s not named after a town, as so so many cheeses are, but after its method of transport.
At Gangivecchio, we eat half-moons of caciocavallo slathered with Giovanna’s spicy pepper jam. It’s just one of the many homegrown condiments she makes in her kitchen, part of a cooking school she runs at her inn. Guests come from all over the world to learn Sicilian cooking from her, having read the two James-Beard-Award winning cookbooks she wrote with her late mother Wanda. The books came about after an editor from Knopf stopped here for lunch 25 years ago.
“What did you serve him for lunch?” I ask.
Giovanna grins as steaming bowls of pasta emerge from the kitchen. “Exactly what you are having,” she says, proudly. The dish — Five Nut Pesto — is a revelation. Finely chopped pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios swim in olive oil lightly seasoned with garlic. Each bite yields all five favors, and Giovanna tells us that all of the nuts — except the pistachios — come from her own trees.
It’s easy to see why an editor would offer her a book deal after eating this dish.
Near the end of our meal, the shepherd joins us. He’s young, maybe 30 and speaks to Giovanna in Sicilian. He’s delighted that we are enjoying his caciocavallo and tells us, through Giovanna’s translation, that he is applying for regulatory status to make Sicilian cheeses using traditional methods — something the European Union manages now.
“We used to make cheeses like Homer describes,” Giovanna says. Now, cheese is made “like in a hospital.” She throws up her hands: “plastic baskets, white walls, people in masks!”
At Gangivecchio, Giovanna holds fast to tradition, both in the kitchen and in the field. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Visiting Gangivecchio: Giovanna’s inn has about dozen rooms. She offers her guests breakfast and dinner, along with cooking classes in preserving local delicacies and preparing Sicilian cuisine.
About this Project: This post is the third in a series for an interdisciplinary project called Due South. For two weeks, I will be in Sicily writing and photographing cheese. You can follow along here and on my Instagram: @mmefromage.