Ricotta makes an appearance in quite a lot of Sicilian dishes, both savoury and sweet. Silvana D had the genius of taking me to a ricotta farm nestled in the hills of Messina. We had an early start because the artisan of this smooth silky cheese commences everyday at the stroke of dawn. He apprenticed at 14, learning the art of ricotta making from his father and has been making ricotta ever since.
This is really a small holding where a manageable amount of ricotta is made daily to be sold to small fromageries in the town centre. Owners of such small holdings tend to also make the cheese for their own consumption. This one is no exception.
Ricotta is made by bringing the whey left over from cheese making to a boiling point and then made to curdle with a little vinegar or lemon juice. Whey is a low fat, nutritious and limpid liquid that is a by-product of cheese making. In effect, ricotta is freshly curdled whey. Therefore, highly perishable and it is advised that ricotta be consumed within a day or two.
The curdling process is easily achieved, usually with vinegar or lemon juice. But in the case of this cheese maker, he curdled the milk with the sap from a fig branch that he had picked from his garden. This is a fine example of living off the land, kawan kawan. The milk comes from the sheep and goats that are kept by the farmer and these are let to roam freely in the hills munching on grass that grow there. Sicilians will tell you that sheep’s milk makes the best flavoured and textured ricotta that is perfect for the desserts that they are so well known for – Cassata and Cannoli.
Look at the fig branch soaking in the bucket. The sap is harnessed by cutting off the leaves and makings incisions in the bark. The sap infused water is then poured into the vat of whey that has been brought to a boil.
The chemical effect is extraordinary – the whey curdled before my very eyes.
It is important to remove the froth whilst vigourously stirring the mixture. As soon as all the froth is removed, the whey is allowed to set and is then scooped into plastic ricotta shaped moulds which act also as sieves to let the excess water drain. When cooled, the ricotta is then refrigerated and transported to be sold in the town.
Italian Ricotta is usually made with sheep, goat, cow or water buffalo milk. This ricotta, however, is made from a mélange of milk from the sheep and goat. The cheese maker feels that this gives his ricotta a better flavour than that made from one type of milk.
Having had an early start, Silvana D and I had missed out on breakfast. But that was no matter because we were offered the freshest ricotta that one can possibly dream of eating, right from the cheese maker’s vat.
Who would have thought an insipid looking white cheese could taste this good? A sprinkle of salt and a handful of bread crumbs from the bread Sicilians call pane duro did the job for me. The ricotta still warm was so smooth and silky that it simply glided down my oesophagus. No chewing was required even of the bread crumbs since these have been moistened by the liquid from the ricotta.
Funny enough, this actually reminded me of breakfast in Singapore as a child. My mother would purchase from the market a soya bean milk curd that is sweetened with palm sugar syrup which has exactly the same consistency as this ricotta – smooth and silky. This soya bean curd is called Taufu Fa and can be eaten chilled or warm.
Funny also how the world seems to have come full circle. In Sicily, I discovered fresh ricotta that reminded me of a memorable childhood eating experience. What more could I have asked for, kawan kawan? But wait, there is more to come….