They say you can’t unlearn something. I say, you can’t un-taste something. Once you try that first bite, your future with that product is forever altered. Get food poisoning from fish and you will stay away from sea creatures for a bit. The same goes with positive experiences. Tasting the best taco from a street vendor in Mexico might be incredible, but you are ruined on every other taco hence forth. Sicily ruined me on ricotta.
It all started with eight of my fellow classmates and me embarking to the island for our fifth study trip of our master program. For one week, we met with a variety of producers to learn more about the bounty of Sicily. One trip led us to Azienda Cucchiara. A family owned farm near Salemi in the Trapini province that produces a variety of sheep milk cheeses.
There is a certain gristliness to the farm that is apparent when you first arrive. It has been worn in. The walls could use some paint and a jar of spackle wouldn’t go far. You can hear the bells of the sheep chime in the background and the smell of animal wafts through the air as it mixes with the sweet scent of milk. The son Baldo greeted us and started our tour. He had a kind face. He wasn’t yet hardened by the years of manual labor that lay ahead.
Later the father, Salvatore, would join his son. He shook each of our hands with such strength that it startled us. He had hands that told a story, rough, calloused, and strong. It took him about three hours until he gave us a look that even remotely resembled a smile. He, unlike his son, could care less that we were there. Our presence meant a longer day for him and his family.
Azienda Cucchiara is home to 1,000 sheep that are milked by hand twice a day. They produce pecorino cheeses, Vastedda della Valle del Belice D.O.P and ricotta. Depending on the season, different cheeses are entered into production. Luckily for us, it was ricotta season.
Ricotta is the ultimate leftover recipe, created out of necessity not out of love. Instead of throwing away the leftover whey from cheese production, you “recook” it, making ricotta. The whey is allowed to sit for 12-24 hours in a large stainless steel vat to intensify in acidity. A small amount of salt is added and then it is heated to nearly boiling. Small white curds start to form as the liquid increases in temperature. Gently the Cucchiara family stirs the vat, careful not to disturb the precious curds. There are no thermometers at this point, there is just instinct. When they are satisfied they start to move it into the plastic containers waiting patiently in front of the vat.
Rhythmically they work, three in total, lifting ladles of the hot mixture into its new home. The containers have holes to allow the remaining whey to once again be drained. As they work quickly and gently steam billows from the table. The sound of the whey dripping into the bucket blends with the occasional clink of the ladle against the steel vat. We became almost hypnotized by the sight and its melodic accompaniment. Baldo broke our trance asking, “Do you all want to try the warm ricotta?”
One bowl and one spoon started its rotation among the eight of us. Each person took a bite, eyes immediately closed and shoulders sank in surrender. Slowly the corners of the mouth turned up and eyes opened, a look of contentment spread across each face. My mouth started to salivate in anticipation. It was finally my turn. The bowl was pleasantly warm in my hands and the scent of salt and warm milk reached my nose. The slightly yellow whey accented the pure white color of the curds. They were thicker than I had ever seen ricotta curds before. I eagerly raised the spoon to my mouth. Eyes closed. Shoulders surrendered. Corners of mouth curved up. The whey added a beautiful acidity that melted with the sweet and creamy curd. It was simple. It was comfort.
We continued on our visit, learning about the other productions, visiting the sheep and meeting more family members, all with the flavor of ricotta still lingering in our mouths. We left in a state of bliss and talked about that ricotta for the days that followed. I may never be able to have another perfect bite of ricotta, or of any other ricotta, but at least I will always have Sicily.