Tasting the Cheeses of Sicily

Photo by David Kessler

Photo by David Scott Kessler

For the cheese-curious traveler in Sicily (or Italy, for that matter), there are several useful books to read in advance: Slow Food’s Italian Cheese and Italy Dish by Dish. Before I left the States, I scoured them both and spent an evening at my kitchen table making a list in my journal of all the divine bites I hoped to taste: warm ricotta, the wine-flame flavored ice creams of Ragusa, honey from Mount Etna, brioche con gelato.

Of course, my real dream was to eat all of the cheeses of the island (there are about 12, mostly sheep’s milk, many of them produced for centuries). At a restaurant called Wine Bar Razmataz in the buzzy city of Catania, that dream came true.

A board of Sicilian cheeses arrived at the table on the night of a birthday dinner for Due South curator (and instigator behind this trip) Marianne Bernstein. Glory be! There were 5 cheeses, accompanied by toasted local pistachios and honey from the bees of Mount Etna (I imagined them circling the mouth of the volcano as I drizzled honey across each morsel).

This post, produced in collaboration with artist/photographer David Scott Kessler, is a tribute to that warm, starry, dairy-laden night. Let me paint the scene: the outdoor table was lit with candles, and gathered around it were a multitude of artists from Philadelphia and Sicily. The night began with a bottle of Etna Rosso (a nose to the glass yielded the faint smell of ash and raspberries) and ended with cheesecake and fireworks, shot from behind the crumbling walls of a castle.

One of those meals to remember?

Definitely.

And now, the cheeses of Sicily…not all, to be sure, but a beautiful few for a reverential board that represents the island.

On the Board: 5 Traditional Sicilian Cheeses

1. Piacentinu Ennese

From the province of Enna, an indigenous sheep’s milk cheese swirled with threads of local saffron and studded with peppercorns. Sweet, aromatic, mild, available in the U.S.

2. Tuma Persa

Made by a single maker, Salvatore Passalaqua, this raw cow’s milk cheese is firm and spicy, thanks to a rub of black pepper and olive oil on the rind. Available in the U.S. at Di Bruno Bros.

3. Vastedda del Belice

A very unusual raw-milk sheep cheese that is “spun” (like mozzarella). Sweet and mild, with a short shelf life.

4. Capra Girgentana

Made from the milk of the rare spiral-horned Girgentana goat, native to Sicily and near extinction, this fresh cheese is wrapped in fig leaves. Stunning.

5. Pecorino Siciliano D.O.P

An ancient cheese made from raw sheep’s milk, thought to be the first cheese in all of Europe, according to Slow Food.

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If you go: Wine Bar Razmataz was the best restaurant on my journey. The vibe is relaxed, the wine list is excellent, and the kitchen highlights regional cuisine. My favorite dish was the risotto with swordfish, capers, and smoked scamorza cheese.

Recreate this board: Ask your local cheesemonger about these selections or similar selections. In Philadelphia, Di Bruno Bros. carries Piacentinu and Tuma Persa. You may find others at Eataly in New York. If not, you just may have to plan a trip to Sicily. Itinerary coming soon!

Posts in this Series: This is the 4th in a series of posts about the cheeses of Sicily. I traveled around the island this summer to chronicle its cheeses as part of an ongoing project curated by Marianne Bernstein, called Due South.

 

The Baked Ricotta of Mirto

La Paisanella Cheese and Meat ShopBefore my Sicilian cheese trek began, I saw images of  “Ricotta Infornata” — sheep’s milk ricotta pressed into forms and baked to a dark chocolate-brown color. Naturally, I was curious to find a source.

My co-conspirators, Marriane and Cindi, helped me suss out the small town of Mirto in the Nebrodie Mountains which is home to a renowned cheese and meat shop, La Pasianella. Here, Luisa and Agostino Sebastiano continue their family tradition of making traditional cheeses and wild boar salami. Any food fiend who travels to Sicily should plan a stop. (Pack a cutting board, you’ll want to picnic.)

La Pasianella Cheese Shop in Sicily

La Paisanella is pristine, its entrance flanked by award certificates. When we arrived, Luisa treated us to a tasting of all the cheeses in her case, including the cheese I’d been looking for: Ricotta Infornata.

She also showed us the oven where the ricotta is baked “for two to three hours.”  The long baking time yields a delicacy that tastes caramelized, like flan. Delicious. I can imagine eating slices of it for dessert with coffee liqueur.

If you stop through Mirto, here are 3 things not to miss:

– House-cured black boar sausage from the family’s black pigs (Suino Nero)

– Nebrodi Provola (the local mountain cheese, which has been inducted into the Slow Food Presidium)

– Ricotta Infornata (slow-baked ricotta, pictured below)

Ricotta Infornata from La Paisanella in Sicily

If You Visit: Mirto is an exquisite small town in the Nebrodie Mountains. You won’t find any tourists, just stray cats, Byzantine ruins, incredible mountain vistas, and friendly locals hanging out at La Cometa, the local pastry shop, where the old men like to watch soccer and nibble butter cookies. Try the gelato and pick up some baked goods for the road.

Note: This post is Part 3 of a Sicilian cheese trek I am undertaking as part of Due South, a Philadelphia-based arts collaborative.

 

 

The Cooking School at Gangivecchio

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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.

Fields of the Madonie Mountains Near Gangi

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Caciocavallo

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.
Salvatore Duca

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.

Sicily: First Impressions

imageI came to Sicily to eat cheese from morning to night. So far, that has not been difficult. We arrived at dawn, the mountains washed in apricot light. The terrain I saw around me as I stepped out of the plane looked rugged and time-worn, the mountains smooth as if shaped by butter knives. In one direction: ocean. In the other: slopes stippled with cacti, palm trees, and gushing magenta bougainvillea. This island is a place of tropical delights — lemons sweet enough to peel and eat — but also a wild mix of culinary traditions including Greek, Roman, Norman, and Arab. I couldn’t wait to get a taste of the cheese.

Marianne Bernstein, the curator of this journey, greeted us at the railway station in Palermo with a wheel of Fior di Garofola that she had been given on her birthday a few days before. It was bestowed upon her by Karen La Rosa, a Sicilian travel guide who knew the purpose of our trek. I was stunned when I saw the box. The name of the cheese maker was the very same one who makes Tuma Persa in the hills outside Palermo (Tuma Persa was the subject of my last post).

Already, I loved Sicily for its curds and coincidences.

I want to give you a taste of Fior Di Garofola. Imagine lemon yogurt and pistachios. The paste is smooth, waxen. The rind stippled gray, like the lichen that grows on the stone houses of Tusa, the medieval village just east of Palermo where we would set down our bags and enjoy our first home-cooked meal.

Naturally, the meal’s first course started in the local Caseificio, a small cheese shop run by the local cheese maker, Rosalia Coppola, and her husband, the herdsman. Here, our host — a native Sicilian who is also a “Professore” in Saint Louis — procured a beautiful basket ricotta made from sheep’s milk. A second coincidence: I had been lured to Sicily on the promise of this very ricotta, described as “heavenly” and “fluffy” and “full of flavor.” Marianne and Cindi, my travel companions, had sought me out around this time last summer — we were strangers to each other then — to tell me how this ricotta had changed their lives.

And so we toasted our first night in Sicily with homemade wine and spoonfuls of basket ricotta. It was ethereal, cloud-like, and sweet with the taste of grass-fed milk. The Professore showed us how he liked to cut it, not in wedges but sliced horizontally (imagine shaving slices off a mountain) and then slivered into half-moons. We drizzled each piece with homemade Amerena cherries in syrup and cooed with pleasure, awed by a perfect first day book-ended by two guiding energies: dairy and serendipity.

Note: This post is part of a project called Due South, an artistic exploration of volcanic islands. For the next two weeks (or as long as I have wifi), I will be blogging from Sicily about our cheese discoveries.

 



 

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

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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.