When In Ragusa, Eat Ragusano
If Sicily has a cheese capital, it must be Ragusa, a baroque town on the southeastern part of the island. Here, my cheese lover, you may experience a thousand diversions, from visiting the beautiful Dipasquale’s Casa del Formaggio (cheese shop) in the heart of town to booking a cheese tasting at CoRFiLaC, a research center devoted to traditional cheesemaking in Sicily.
Ragusa is home to Ragusano, one of the island’s best-known (and most complex) cheeses. I was thrilled that our small band of cheese trekkers got to witness the preparation of this ancient recipe on two separate occasions. Let me show you how these curious bricks — perhaps the original brick cheese? — comes together.
Here’s Giovanni Tumino, a cheesemaker at CoRFiLaC, demonstrating how he starts the process by cutting curds into thin strips, then stretching them.
That’s right, the process looks a whole lot like mozzarella making. In fact, Ragusano is a pasta filata, or “spun,” cheese.
Next, the cheeses are formed and pressed into a coffin-like contraption called a Mastredda, made from Douglas Fir trees (below). Once the shape of the cheese is established, the blocks are brined, then stamped and dated since Ragusano is a DOP cheese, meaning that its production is connected to its place of origin — much like Champagne.
Here’s Giuseppe Tumino, a third generation cheesemaker, pressing Ragusano at his farm, where he makes 2 to 3 blocks per day from the milk of his Bruna cows. His farm is just down the road from the country house were we stayed, a wonderful B&B called Casina di Grotta di Ferro (highly recommended).
Seeing this process made me curious to know if any artisan makers in the States are making a cheese inspired by Ragusano. It’s a raw cow’s milk cheese made with traditional rennet from a lamb or kid.
Once brined, the cheeses are hung in pairs from rope, then slung over wooden supports to cave-age. For a prolonged aging time of 8 or 9 months, Ragusano is rubbed with olive oil. It can also be smoked.
Here’s affineur Angelo Dipasquale who handles the aging of Ragusano in has natural cave on the outskirts of Ragusa. About 100 families make Ragusano in small batches, and Angelo collects the best ones in his white van and ferries them back to his stone nursery.
I’ve never seen any place like Angelo’s cave. I hope to write a larger magazine story on this experience, so I’m just sharing a couple images here.
When you taste Ragusano, the experience calls to mind buttered sweet corn. I first encountered it in Philadelphia at my local shop, Di Bruno Bros., a few years ago. We included it in the shop’s cheese guide, The Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese, and dubbed it “a cowboy of the Italian cheese world — big, sinewy, and salty.” The mongers at Di Bruno Bros. tell me that they still carry Ragusano from time to time, mostly around the holidays — which means I’ll just have to plan a second trip to Sicily to get my fix in the summers.
About This Series: This is Part V in a series of posts about a Sicilian Cheese Adventure with artist/curator Marianne Bernstein, who is working on a multi-artist project based called Due South. I got invited to join her when she got hooked on Sicilian ricotta and decided that she needed a cheese expert/writer to join her. “Okay,” said I.
Your Sicilian Cheese Itinerary: Up next! Want to recreate some of this journey yourself? My next post will include highlights from our trip with details about cheese tastings, specialty food stores, restaurants, and favorite accommodations. Many of these recommendations came from Karen La Rosa, a native of Sicily who now lives in New York City and offers tours and travel planning for anyone interested in visiting her homeland.