Ricotta is much loved by Italians particularly Sicilians who like to eat it very fresh (made on the day). It is eaten on its own and is an essential ingredient, both in savoury and in sweet dishes.
In Sicily the more prized ricotta is made from sheep’s milk. It is creamier, sweeter and more fragrant than the cow’s milk variety – this is especially used in Sicilian pastries especially cannoli and cassata.
The word ri-cotta means re-cooked. After the curd has been removed to make cheese, the left over whey is recooked to make the ricotta so interestingly in Italy it is not considered a cheese. However, a cheese manufacturer in Australia has told me that ricotta is mostly made from whole or part skim milk (sometimes called ricotta magra) and because it is a first curd we can call it a cheese.
In Australia ricotta is mostly made from cows’ milk but there are some manufacturers that use sheep’s milk. An excellent one is from a sheep dairy on Kangaroo Island’s Cygnet River in South Australia (Island Pure). Mt. Emu Creek in Camperdown, Western Victoria also make one and I have also tasted one in Tasmania, but at that time the texture and taste needed further development (the other sheep’s milk cheeses from this particular cheese manufacturer were excellent).
My parents lived close to a cheese factory in Adelaide and when my father retired and was still alive, they used to buy their ricotta three times per week. They knew the time and the day that it was made and collected it and consumed it while it was still warm and fragrant, any left over ricotta was used in cooking. If it was to be eaten the next day, it was heated in the microwave for a few minutes to rinfrescarla (refresh it).
The same Adelaide cheese manufacturer makes ricotta salata. This cheese is extraordinarily good to eat fresh – it is much thicker and tastier than the fresh ricotta because it has been salted and drained for about one week before it is sold. It also tastes exceptionally good baked, fresh and unadulterated – use a slow oven. If you have enough willpower to allow some to dry naturally, you can use it as a grating cheese (my father used to have an electric fan, positioned on top of the cheese to help the drying process). The hard, strong tasting Greek variety of ricotta salata that seems to be more readily available commercially is quite different.
When we first came to Australia we were unable to buy ricotta. My father explained how the contadini (people who lived in rural areas and had some produce) used to make ricotta by using milk from their goat, sheep or cow, and the natural rennet from the stomach lining of one of these slaughtered animals to coagulate the milk. Rennin is now synthesized. Because the rennet was not always available (it depended how often one slaughtered) the contadini also used the sap of a branch from the fig tree to set the milk.
On a radio program I heard of an interesting development that took place around the town of Woodburn in New South Wales. In 1882 a number of Italians arrived and built a happy and prosperous settlement, which was called “New Italy”. They grew vegetables and grapes, used to fatten pigs and calves; they made salami and also cheese. To do this, after the calves were killed for meat, they filled the stomach with milk and smoked it slowly over a fire for at least 3 days. The rennet set the milk and they had cheese. Where there is a need there is a way.
Back in the past I did try to make ricotta and used the sap from a branch of a fig tree. It did work, but I would like to have known about junket tablets, which were at the time, very popular for setting milk as desserts and are commonly still produced in South Australia.