SICILIAN CHEESE MAKING. A VISIT TO A MASSARO (farmer-cheese maker) IN RAGUSA. Formaggio all’argentiera

Ricotta is much loved by Sicilians who like to eat it very fresh. It is an essential ingredient, eaten on its own or used in cooking, both is savoury and in sweet dishes.

See earlier post: RICOTTA 

So too, Sicilians are very fond of any locally made cheese, and in Ragusa there are a considerable number of cows (rather than sheep).

These photos displaying local cheeses were taken in Ragusa Ibla.

IMG_3440

My zia Niluzza lives in Ragusa and regularly has her ricotta and some caciocavallo (provola) cheese delivered by a local man who makes it on his small property.

For many years the cheese and ricotta used to be delivered by a man called Ciccio who made cheese on a small scale on a small farm (masseria) just outside of Marina di Ragusa. My aunt used to refer to him as a massaro (a farmer). He only had three cows. Those who have a few more cows are most likely to be called a vaccaro (a person who has cows). In order to be referred to as a casaro (a cheese maker) the person would need to produce a significant amount of cheese.

IMG_3443

Ragusano cheese is also made locally in the environs of Ragusa, and if you have watched any of the Inspector Moltalbano programmes you would have seen Ragusa and its environs – nearly all the Montalbano episodes were filmed in this location. It is a provola cheese – the processing is similar to that used in making mozzarella. The curds are drained, then put in boiling water and stretched.

Ragusano is a large, rectangular cheese and can weigh 10-16 kilograms (most weigh 12 kilograms) and it is one of the most original and oldest cheeses from Sicily. It is shaped in a traditional wooden mould and is predominantly made in small family farms. Its production is still tied to artisan and traditional cheese manufacturing; the cheese is salted and regularly rubbed with a mixture of oil and vinegar and this process gives the cheese a characteristic, dark, golden-yellow external skin. This cheese has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) classification, designed to protect the integrity of European food and drink – it means that only items produced in a specific area in a particular way may bear that label in the European market.

Ciccio the massaro used to make Ragusano cheese, but since it has become a PDO cheese he cannot sell it to others. To convert his methods and equipment to satisfy the PDO requirements is far too costly.

IMG_3441

I first visited Ciccio the massaro (cheese maker) in 1977. I remember my aunt being surprised that I expressed so much interest to accompany her on such a mundane trip, when we could have been doing more interesting sightseeing. We arrived unannounced and found the family making the ricotta and cheese in a two roomed barn with a packed-earth floor and thick stone walls – these apparently provided natural air conditioning for the cheeses to dry. I remember it being quite dark and smoky inside and when we arrived he had just made what was going to be his Ragusano – at this stage it was curd submerged in a tub.

There were more tubs and cheeses in the second room – pear shaped provole and some large yellow cheeses were hanging from rafters (Ragusano). There were also a few white cheeses draining in reed baskets and some were maturing on racks.

Apart from the strong smell of smoke, there was also a cloying, sour odour – mostly from the soured milk, but also the result of rubbing of extra virgin olive oil and vinegar onto the rind of the Ragusano to produce the characteristic colour of the cheese.

IMG_0272

 

His, teenage son was standing over a large cauldron, positioned on a wood fire and stirring what was to become the ricotta – the whey left over from the caciocavallo with a little more milk. We all stood around waiting and watching. There was very little communication (except in Sicilian) and the son appeared to stir the cauldron for a long time until the liquid began to separate. His silent wife disappeared into the house and returned with a terracotta bowl for each of us and some bread, which she broke into pieces and put on the bottom of each bowl.

Then each of us received a ladle full of curds and whey, and we were offered spoons. I made a comment at the time about this event. It was like ceremony in a church – the smoke (reminded me of incense), the silence, the secret language (Sicilian rather than Latin) the miracle of turning the whey into ricotta, and finally the sharing of it. I do not think that this went down very well – it was not intended to sound like blasphemy.

The cheese makers stood around delighted to see me taste the hot ricotta for the first time. Before this experience, I had no idea that eating freshly made ricotta was considered such treat, nor that it was manufactured in such primitive conditions.

We took back to Ragusa some Ragusano, fresh provola, ricotta salata (ricotta which is drained, salted and left to dry) and some fresh ricotta – the warm curds draining in a basket made of reeds.

IMG_0269

My brother and his wife visited Sicily shortly after this event and because I had been very excited by this experience, zia Niluzza took them to his masseria (farm), unfortunately on a rather warm day. My sister-in-law, who does not like milk very much, could not bring herself to eat this odoriferous concoction. I was told that zia was very embarrassed by her refusal and I can imagine the cheese makers standing around expectant and being disappointed by her response. But I also know how my sister-in-law’s stomach must have felt – the sweet smell of the curds combined with the acid smells of cheeses (in various stages drying), the smoke and heat generated from around the cauldron could have been nauseating. Zia Niluzza had planned the visit without consultation, not remotely considering for a moment that there are individuals in this world that cannot stomach milk or cheese, let alone warm curds in a watery whey.

Not everyone likes it!!!

IMG_3431

Ciccio no longer makes cheeses and my aunt tells me that  he has sold his farm because economic and environmental conditions have changed in Ragusa.

Zia Niluzza now goes to a different masseria to eat fresh ricotta. On my last trip to Sicily she was organising a group of women from her church to go with her. She does this on a regular basis and apparently there are now many masserie in Sicily who are opening up their doors to locals and to tourists to eat hot ricotta. I did not wish to go with her – I do not want my previous memories to fade.

IMG_0273
I have already written a recipe for Baked Ricotta (see RICOTTA FRISCA‘NFURNATA – RICOTTA FRESCA INFORNATA (Baked, fresh ricotta) 

RECIPE: Formaggio all’Argentiera (slices of fried cheese with garlic, vinegar and oregano)

Formaggio all’Argentiera is also a favourite in my kitchen, especially as an antipasto. It is very easy to prepare, and I have never had complaints from guests.

Argento is the word for silver, and silversmiths could eat cheese cooked in this manner. Also, the method of cooking it is the same as the method that could be used to cook meat. The poor could not afford to eat meat (the silversmiths could), but the poor could cook cheese and give the impression of being well off (to any one who was walking past their house while they were cooking the cheese).

In Sicily it is made with provola cheeses (as mentioned above). I also use slices of formaggio fresco.

INGREDIENTS

For each slice of cheese use a little extra virgin olive oil to fry the cheese.
Also: 1 large olive clove of garlic (crushed), ½ teaspoon of oregano, pepper, 1 tablespoons of white wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar.
PROCESSES
I use a non-stick frypan.
Heat the oil; use medium heat.
Add the garlic, the slices of cheese and lower the heat. Sprinkle the cheese with some of the dry oregano and pepper.
Cook for about 1 minute until golden in colour, turn the cheese over and again sprinkle the cheese with some dry oregano and pepper and cook for as long again.
Remove the fried cheese to the serving dish.
Add the vinegar and sugar into the hot oil, cook for about 1-2 minutes until part of the liquid evaporates.
Pour the sauce over the cheese and serve.

2 thoughts on “SICILIAN CHEESE MAKING. A VISIT TO A MASSARO (farmer-cheese maker) IN RAGUSA. Formaggio all’argentiera”

  1. I had some of this delicious Ragusano cheese last week as part of an anti pasta platter at a restaurant In south beach in Miami.I had to ask the chef what kind of cheese this was as it was so tasty and its golden color was a knock out.He wrote it down for me and now I must find a supply for my home or bring a bunch back after I visit Italy this fall.-Jerome

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *