I say Italian cheese. What cheese comes to mind? Parmigiano Regiano, mozzarella and ricotta might be three of the handful of Italian cheeses that are household names, but Italy actually makes over 200 cheeses. Like the rest of the food products in the bel paese, cheesemaking is just as regional.
Tasting the local cheeses in Italy is a treat I enjoy in each region I visit. Experiencing the making of some of these cheeses and tasting them, only seconds after they've been made, is a truly special experience. One I got to do during my recent trip to Salento.
Ylenia and Claudia took me to Azienda Padulano in the Salento countryside, just outside of Lecce. Luciano took us on a tour of his cheese-making facilities, where they make a variety of cow's milk cheeses. During our tour of the land, we saw the cow's, lounging in the field and some being fed. We also toured the pasture and milking facilities. As Luciano explained the entire procedure, he spoke passionately about the cows, the pasture, the milking process, and reminisced about when his grandfather made cheese.
After our tour, we had a special cheesemaking demonstration of some of Padulano's fresh cheeses: giuncata, primo sale and ricotta. Giuncata and primo sale are two fresh Salentino cheeses that are similar in tastes. Made with fresh milk curds, the primo sale (pree-moh sah-lay) is placed in traditional cheese baskets right after the cheesemaking process, in order to drain off any excess liquid. The giuncata (joon-kah-tah), made with the same fresh milk curds, is tightly wrapped in dried giunchi (rush branches). This cheese, which gets its name from the giunchi in which it's wrapped, takes on the shape of its wrapping.
The first step in the process is to separate the milk into curds and whey. Rennet (caglio in Italian), an enzyme coming from an animal's stomach, (Padulano uses rennet from lambs) is added to the milk to curdle the milk and separate the curds and whey. Heating the mixture, they stirred the milk as it separated. They then poured the mixture through a strainer to drain off the whey.
They placed the curds into a cheese basket to let the remaining whey run out, leaving us with a dense fresh cheese. The texture was a little firmer than cream cheese.
Giuncata wrapped in Giunchi and then Being Unwrapped
For the giuncata, they placed the curds onto the dried rush leaves and wrapped it tightly, securing it with rubber bands. Once almost all the liquid drained from the cheese, they unwrapped it from the giunchi.
While letting both these cheeses rest, they moved onto ricotta making. Using the whey that remained and recooking it (ricotta in Italian literally means re-cooked). They added salt, and a little more milk, and reheated the whey to around 85 C. The cheesemaker told me the ending temperature depended mainly on the acidity of the milk.
Still slightly warm, and only seconds after it had been made, we got to taste the creamy ricotta at its freshest.
Azienda Padulano makes a wide range of cheeses, including mozzarella, burrata, provolone, and aged cheeses. Luciano brought out a few of the aged cheeses for us to try, along with his superb yogurt. The yogurt was all natural, so pure and creamy with just a touch of tanginess, that now I can't eat any other yogurt.
All these cheeses were delicious on their own. Being the pastry person that I am, I have visions of the creamy cheese dessert I'll be making on my next trip to Salento, using some of the fresh Azienda Padulano cheese and their yogurt!
They packaged all the freshly made cheese up for us, and it was part of our lunch at Masseria L'Astore later in the day. During our lunch, I also tried another regional cheese, ricotta forte (meaning strong ricotta). This sounds like an oxymoron at first. How could something so mild and creamy be strong, right? Well, think again. They basically let the ricotta sour, under controlled conditions. Leaving you with something stronger than sour cream, as stinky as the stinkiest of French cheeses, and with a sourness that can be tongue numbing and face curling, if you're not careful.
Spread a VERY thin layer of ricotta forte on bread or crostini and its sourness blends nicely with the bread. Place a whopping American-sized dollop on top of the bread, and the cheese will have your face more twisted and contorted than a mouthful of those sour gummy candies ever could.
Join me in Puglia in 2013! For this food lover's culinary tour, we'll be cooking with our beautiful Italian mamme and professional chefs and also eating and exploring our way through the region. There are four tour dates available from which to choose! For tour details, check out this page: Culinary Tours in Puglia 2013!
***Early booking discount: Book and pay by check by January 31, 2013 and receive a $200 discount off the tour price.****