Donnafugata and Artisan Cheese Making in Sicily:
Arriving at Donnafugata after dark is stunning – driving to the top of the hill, approaching the building blazing with lights that illuminate the fine neo-gothic facade. But our trip to this 17th Century Castello was to learn about Ricotta and Caciocavallo Ragusa – a DOP cheese that can only be made in the Ragusa area of Sicily, and to see the process of making ricotta rather than to view the Castello,which was closed by then. A few bars and cafes in the courtyard were open, but quiet. And, our host for the evening emerged from one of the buildings, beaming and welcoming us to his organic artisan cheese production.
This farm produces DOP Caciocavallo whenever the milk production is suitable. Our host explained that he had only just started producing Caciocavallo this year, partly because he had been renovating the building he worked in and partly because in Sicily, the temperatures in summer mean that the cows cannot feed on grass which is rich enough to produce good cheese!
We learnt that Caciocavallo (one of Sicily’s oldest cheeses) is traditionally worked with wooden utensils, before being shaped in a rectangular wooden mould (you can see the mould in the photo above, looking like a rather strangely shaped coffin), stamped with the producer’s name, and finally brined in salt water. It can be eaten fresh but is more generally aged. The term caciocavallo – cheese on horseback – comes from the practice of tying a rope around the middle of 2 rectangular cheeses, then hanging them over a beam to age – reminiscent of being astride a horse – as demonstrated in the photo. The cheese is a little like a nutty parmesan. We tasted 8 month old Caciocavallo - I wondered what the 18 month version of the cheese was like. It take 10 litres of milk to produce one kilo of Caciocavallo and so it is important where possible to minimise wastage by making a second cheese.
A by-product of the Caciocavallo production is fresh ricotta and a large cauldron of whey was already being heated for that purpose when we visited. Ricotta is produced from the whey that is left over once the cheese that is to become Caciocavallo has been extracted from the milk. To make it, the whey is first acidified then heated to a set temperature, at which point the curds will separate and can be strained to produce a light, white cheese. Here, the whey is being heated over a woodburning stove, with the farmer feeding the fire and checking the cheese regularly.
Once the curds form, the pot is removed from the stove and the curds are strained. Traditionally, ricotta was eaten warm, sometimes with sausage cooked while the curds were being strained. A peasant meal because ricotta is the ‘waste’ product from the main cheese. At Donnafugata, you can bring your own sausage to be grilled, just as local Sicilians would have done and enjoy a rather unusual picnic.
We ate our warm ricotta in the courtyard of the Castello mopping up the cheese and whey with fresh bread and taking mouthfuls of freshly grilled Sicilian sausage that were passed around. And of course washing everything down with generous helpings of local Sicilian wine. A perfect and relaxing September evening under the stars.