If I had to pick a favourite moment of the Italian cookery holiday in Spongano organised by Demuths, I would really struggle. I was so taken by it all, from the location (the splendid palazzo Bacile di Castiglione), to the guests, from the recipes and fresh produce bought daily from the market to the programme of activities, that I secretly wished the holiday had lasted two weeks instead of one...not to mention the food, which was always delicious and fresh, inspired by the region and made by all to share.
Despite the difficulty in choosing, two events are still fresh in my memory and I am sure I will cherish for a long time: the visit to a small caseificio (cheese making facility) and second being taught how to make fresh pasta. Both events were characterised by the generosity of those who took time to explain and teach us their art, with care, enthusiasm and passion. I learnt so much that I might even attempt making mozzarella at home, simply by recalling the steps so clearly demonstrated.
Making Cheese in Italy
Just imagine 15 people walking behind the cheese counter of the front shop into the inner sanctum where milk is received and cheese made without much of a questioning look from the clients queuing patiently to be served. As we walk in everything is ready for us and Giuseppe, the young cheese maker, who is continuing the family tradition, shows us to a large vat full of unpasteurised milk just arrived. One and a half hours later we have seen how milk is curdled using a vegetarian rennet (a personal choice of Giuseppe, to meet the demand of the many Muslim clients), how the curd is separated from the whey and washed with boiling water, a process which both pasteurises and melts the curd, while imparting the necessary stringiness to the final mozzarella.
We have seen how the swift hands of the cheese maker shape the melted and stringy curd into balls of different sizes, plats and knots, and how a small bag of mozzarella is filled with delicious stracciatella, a mix of mozzarella and cream, to make burrata, possibly the most delicious treat one can wish for at lunch. We also learn that temperature is of paramount importance in cheese making, and small variations determine whether mozzarella or caciocavallo (a more robust and harder cheese) is made.
But perhaps the most traditional of the local cheeses is giuncata, which gets its name from the word 'giunco', meaning reed, due to the fact that the fresh curd is ladled into a mat made of reed. This allows the whey to drain and the cheese to take its defining shape. This is a very fresh cheese which needs to be eaten within few days from being made, delicious served with a simple salad or tomatoes. Giuseppe even shows us a cheese mould hand woven from reeds, a unique piece which was used by his grandad to make cheese at home.
The last fascinating demonstration is the making of ricotta as we all steadily move away from the work bench towards the vat full of whey. A bucket of milk is added, to increase output, then the whey is heated up and more rennet is added. A last blast of steam inside the whey caused the ricotta to surface, where it is collected and placed in the characteristic moulds.
Slowly but steadily lunch was taking shape in our minds as we all headed back into the shop and came out with 4 bags of cheese and a smile on our faces...