To Sicily, In Search of Tuma Persa

Tuma Persa and Astoria Cocktail
Readers, you know that there are few things I enjoy more than a cheese odyssey. Today I leave for Sicily to begin a dairy adventure with a pair of artists, Marianne Bernstein and Cindi Ettinger, who are obsessed with volcanic islands.

The project, Due South, is Marianne’s second in a series of location-based collaborations designed to spark conversation between American artists and volcanic island communities. Why? To veer off the beaten path. To explore the cardinal directions. To splice contemporary art with small town life.

Believe me, when I received an email from Marianne inviting me out for coffee to talk about the cheeses she had tasted in Sicily, it never occurred to me that she was asking me to travel there with her. (I thought she wanted some ricotta for a gallery tasting.) But isn’t it funny how cheese brings people together?

Time and time again, I am amazed. Cheese is an invitation (tastebuds, come here!). And it is a collaboration — between hands, animals, and soil.

The knitting together of curds somehow brings people together to experience amazement.

I am so honored to participate in this voyage for the next two weeks.

And so, I present to you: one of the most interesting Sicilian cheeses I have tasted in the United States, Tuma Persa. Very soon, I hope to meet its maker.

Tuma Persa Italian Cheese

Tuma Persa is made by Salvatore Passalacqua in the hills outside Palermo

The Cheese: Tuma Persa

Persa means forgotten. I have heard one thing and read another. When I first tasted this cheese at Di Bruno Bros. here in Philadelphia, I learned that it was called “forgotten” cheese because the maker had developed it from a lost recipe he discovered in a closet. I even wrote an entry about it in my last book, The Di Bruno Bros. House of CheeseInterestingly, my Slow Food edition of Italian Cheese explains that once this cheese has been “transferred to its hoop, it is persa (forgotten) for eight to ten days.” Then it is washed and brushed before salting, and forgotten again for another week and a half.

Here’s what I know: this cheese smells like salami. Think: black pepper, salt, meat, cured lemon. Its finish is spicy, like soppressata. I like to pair it with an Astoria Cocktail, which tastes a bit like the sea. Together, this pairing is what I imagine Sicily to taste and smell like.

The Drink: Astoria Cocktail

Made with “sweet” Hayman’s gin and dry vermouth, which is mellow and yeasty, this drink gets a touch of spice from orange bitters and a kick of citrus from a twist of lemon. Cool and mellow, it lets Tuma Persa unleash its big briny cloud of flavors. A gin martini with a fat old olive would work well here, too. But I like this combination. The Astoria, from the old Waldorf Astoria, is a bit briny. It’s one of the cocktails highlighted in my new book with Andre Darlington, The New Cocktail Hour (Running Press 2016).

1 ounce Old Tom gin (Hayman’s)

2 ounces dry vermouth (Dolin)

Dash orange bitters (Regan’s)

Lemon twist, for garnish

Stir ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. To garnish, twist the peel over the surface of the drink to express the oil. Then, run the peel around the rim of the glass and drop it into the drink.

Sicilian cheese and a briny Astoria Cocktail from The New Cocktail Hour book

Sicilian cheese and a briny Astoria Cocktail from The New Cocktail Hour


Follow Us in Sicily via Instagram

From June 7-June 20, 2016: follow @mmefromage & @DueSouth2016

My goal? To experience the island and its cheeses, to meet dairy farmers and cheesemakers, to create something to share as part of the Due South exhibition at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (DCCA) in January 2017.

To read more about Due South, check out this article in Times of Sicily.



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