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It’s All About the Cheese

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All of this work with the sheep has one main purpose: to produce high-quality milk that will be transformed into pecorino, Italian sheep’s milk cheese. Carmella heads up the cheese-making here at Colavecchio Borraro farm, and she has shown me the process from start to finish. Everything is done under strict standards of cleanliness, which are critical for controlling the quality of the finished cheese.

There are many variables that determine what type of cheese will be made: the amount of rennet added, the temperature of the milk at various stages of the process, the milk itself, the amount of fat left in the milk (from whole to skim, with cream added or, conversely, water), the size of the curd once it is broken, the amount of acidity allowed to develop in the curd as it sits, the size of the cheese, whether or not it is brined, whether or not the rind is washed and if so with what, and the environment where the cheese is aged. These are only a few of the many things that determine the type of cheese to be made. The following is a description of how Carmella makes her pecorino.

First, all of the milk here is raw, meaning it is not pasteurized. The sheep’s varied diet of mountain grasses and plants creates a diverse combination of enzymes in the milk. By leaving the milk raw, these natural enzymes as well as all of the natural bacteria already present will lead to a more complex and flavorful cheese. (Pasteurized milk must have cultures reintroduced to it after pasteurization in order to make cheese, which are never as diverse as those found in raw milk.)

Carmella adds rennet (from the stomach of a ruminant animal) to the milk, causing it to coagulate. Once the milk has coagulated, forming a very delicate block of jellied milk, she takes a utensil that looks like a giant whisk and breaks the coagulated milk up into small rice-grain sized curds. She drains and reserves the whey, from which she will later make ricotta. She then pours the curds into forms, in this case plastic baskets with patterned holes in them, which will allow more whey to drain as the cheeses are pressed and left to sit for a few hours.

Milking the Sheep, Molise
Milking the Sheep, Molise
Carmela Breaks the Cheese Curd, Molise
Carmela Breaks the Cheese Curd, Molise
Filling the Molds with Curd, Molise
Filling the Molds with Curd, Molise
Cheese in Molds, Molise
Cheese in Molds, Molise

Once the cheeses have been pressed, they are submerged in a brine overnight. From there they are moved to the aging room, a special temperature and humidity-controlled cellar, where they are spaced out on on shelves made of wooden slats. The fresh rounds of cheese are white, but within a few days a pinkish bloom begins to appear on the rind. Every few days we must rub all of the cheeses down with an oiled sponge, helping to form the exterior rind and slow down the mold growth and aging processes, which improves the cheese.

Cheese in Molds, Molise
Cheese in Molds, Molise
Oiling Cheese, Molise
Oiling Cheese, Molise

Mario and Carmella sell their pecorino at three different ages: fresh, while it is still white and mild in flavor; aged about two months, which they call “abbedecato” and roughly translates as “that which will be something else later, but is good even now before it has reached its destination”; and aged about four months, which is the most pungent and complex in flavor.

There is the custom in Molise, as in other parts of Italy such as Sardinia, to allow small flies to lay their eggs in cracks in the cheese. These eggs hatch into maggots, which eat and transform the cheese into something even more pungent. The cheese is then called “case’ d quagl”, and it is eaten worms and all, a delicacy for those who can stomach it. I was lucky enough to try some of Mario and Carmella’s cheese that had been infested by the worms. “Oh how fortunate you are,” Mario said to me and his young son Pietro, who also had a wormy piece.

Carmella also makes a wonderful runny soft-rind cheese that is their own invention, the serendipitous result of Carmella going into labor halfway through making cheese one day three years ago.

I have accompanied Mario to one of the markets where he sells their cheeses. Elderly men chatting nearby were at first wary of the higher-than-average price Mario charges. They made snide remarks to Mario about the cost of his cheese, but one by one he was able to convince each of them to taste a sample of the cheese. Their expressions changed. “Ah,” one said, “this is like the cheese I used to eat when I was a child.” Then another asked Mario if he had any with worms. “No,” Mario said, “I save that for myself.” Each man walked away with large rounds of cheese, to take home and surprise his wife.

2 Responses to “It’s All About the Cheese”

  1. on 09 Apr 2007 at 10:17 amChristophe Gillet

    Is there anywhere to pick up the contraband “case’ d quagl” cheese here in the US? Or is this something that I have “grow” on my own.

    Mmmmmmmm…. sounds deliciously maggoty.

  2. on 09 Apr 2007 at 6:33 pmDaniel

    Under EU regulations it isn’t legal to sell the worm cheese in Italy, but that doesn’t stop people from eating their own, or selling it under the table.

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