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.
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?
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
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.
A very unusual raw-milk sheep cheese that is “spun” (like mozzarella). Sweet and mild, with a short shelf life.
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.
An ancient cheese made from raw sheep’s milk, thought to be the first cheese in all of Europe, according to Slow Food.
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.
Before 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 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)
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 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.
I 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.