In the Salento countryside, a few kilometers from the city of Lecce and along a stretch of road filled with olive trees (common landscape for this region) my friend Ylenia brought me to the sprawling farmhouse of Masseria CinqueSanti. We were greeted with hugs and cheek kisses from Lina; she's the third generation of female cheesemakers on this farm. We were there for a special ricotta making demonstration. It was special not only because we got to taste samples of the freshly made ricotta minutes after it was made - a must for every cheese lover before they die - but the ricotta from the demonstration was ours to take with us!
Using some of the whey that remained from the morning's cheesemaking, they added salt, a small cupful more of milk, and reheated the whey. (This is how ricotta gets its name; ricotta means recooked in Italian). With the heat and gentle stirring motion of the cheesemaker, the whey curdled ever so slightly to make the oh so creamy ricotta. As the ricotta drained in baskets, we could hardly wait for it to cool down enough to taste it. It was worth the wait, the four of us dipped our little spoons in again and again in the little tasting bowls Lina gave us.
After the ricotta tasting, I met Nonna Anna, Lina's mother. She had stayed quiet and in the background while Lina explained the stages of ricotta making, and we hadn't even noticed her petite frame watching over the demonstration. After the demo, she gently ushered us to her case of special cheeses. This is where Nonna's craft of cheesemaking borders on art. What had originally started as the same white rounds of cheese, now varied in colors, textures and flavor based on her imangination and whimsy. To some she added nuts, to others peppercorns, to others herbs, to others fruit, to others a combination of these, and to one, with a most notable burgandy color, the grape skins from the famous Negramaro grape - THE wine of the region.
Some of the variations are always available, like the cheese covered in Negramaro grape skins, or those covered in ashes of olive leaves, but many of the rest change daily based on the flavor combinations Nonna Anna wants to experiment with that day. The combinations that are big hits make it into the regular rotation while the others make guest appearances every now and then. (I'm hoping the lemon-thyme combination that I tried makes it into the regular rotation for my next visit.)
Masseria CinqueSanti makes many of the traditional cheeses of Puglia and an assortment of aged cheeses. The aged cheeses can be just a few hours old "di filiera corta," 20 days old and even older. Some of the stagionato (aged) cheeses were over 6 months old. They combine sheep's, goat's and cow's milk from the animals on the farm to make the aged cheeses.
A bit of information on the Masserie in Puglia. They are ancient fortified farmhouses. Most of them were built between the 14th and 18th centuries. Many had high stone walls to protect against invasions by pirates and the Turks. They were living communities that housed families of the peasant farmers who worked for the masseria. Of the masserie that were abandoned in the early 20th century, many have been restored into luxurious hotels, boutique bed and breakfasts, or grand spaces for special events and weddings. Others have been restored to working order. In those, you’ll find working vineyards, animals whose milk make creamy Salento cheese like at Masseria CinqueSanti, fields full of vegetables and fruit, and of course, olive groves.
Masseria CinqueSanti is part of the Campagna Amica group of farmers working together to keep the food chain in Italy as local as possible. We not only took the freshly-made ricotta with us, but also some freshly-made mozzarella and a few selections from Nonna Anna's special case. All were exceptional and made up our antipasti for our lunch with Mamma Giulia (more about cooking with Mamma Giulia next week).
You can see cheesemaking demonstrations and taste fresh cheeses like these and more - Join me on this Food & Wine Lover's Culinary Tour in Puglia!
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. We'll also be 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.****
Via Prov.le per Lecce
Phone: +39 0832 89 11 78
The cheese store is open 7 days a week: 8am-2pm and 4pm-8pm