During our time in New York City, we had a lovely dinner with some friends of ours. Oddly enough, we were sitting in a French restaurant when the conversation turned Italian. Our New York hosts were both of Italian descent and they were sitting in front of two Sicilian natives.
We discussed everything that was food and wine: tasty Nero d’Avola and lovely paccheri alla ragusana; focaccia and arancini; Ragusano DOP and fresh Sicilian ricotta cheese.
When we started talking about ricotta, the four Italians had a disagreement.
Our friends insisted the cheese was made like mozzarella: from a boiling mass of cow’s milk, the cheese would curdle to the top. There it was skimmed and drained producing delicious ricotta cheese.
“That cheese,” we replied, “is called primo sale. It isn’t ricotta.”
Discussion ensued and long-held family beliefs were broken. It almost got violent.
Ricotta cheese has a fascinating history to it. And although you may think it’s “just cheese,” the cultural connections to this creamy delight may surprise you. When first looking into this mysterious cheese, it helps to know a little Italian.
WHAT’S IN A NAME:
The Italian word “to cook” is cucinare. However, its past participle is irregular. If something is “cooked” it is cotto. When the noun is feminine, it is cotta.
To repeat an action in Italian, we use the suffix ri-. For example, if I “re-wind something”, I’d say ri-avvolgere; If I “re-new” a subscription, I would ri-nnovare (en-dashes are mine for phonetics). We see this similar pattern in the popular Tuscan dish of ribollita. Bollita comes from bollire (to boil). Thus anything I find in ribollita – according to tradition – is reboiled. That is exactly what ribollita is: a poor dish where peasants would re-boil old vegetables, stale bread and beans (basically anything they could find) to make a meal. Nothing ever went to waste.
TURN UP THE HEAT:
A demonstration of ricotta cheese-making opens the eyes (and the palate) to the unique way our ancestors made cheese.
In Italy (primarily Sicily) ewe’s milk and cow milk was used to produce ricotta. Sheep milk was preferred because it had more fat and protein and a generally richer, creamier taste. This sheep’s milk was (and today still is) poured into a large cauldron and set over a hot flame.
As the milk warms, some starter whey protein is added to it and stirred continuously. According to the text Cheese: Chemistry, Physics and Microbiology, the heat and protein induce coagulation of the casein. As soon as the curd begins to form and float to the top, the heat is turned off. As the mixture cools, more and more casein coagulates and rises to the surface.
DON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN:
A good cheese-maker stirs the cauldron from the sides to the center “rolling” the curd, helping it to bind. All the curd will have formed in about 30 minutes. Then the process of “skimming” takes place: perforated canisters allow the liquid to drain yet hold the cheese inside. Traditionally these were bamboo reeds with slits cut out on the sides. Today they are simple plastic containers.
But wait: this isn’t ricotta. This “first skimming” is called primo sale. It is a light and delicate pasteurized sheep’s cheese. Sometimes the locals will add peppercorns to it, or pimentos. It is great at aperitivo time or for a light snack in the afternoon.
But this isn’t ricotta. We’ve only partially recovered the whey protein from the goat’s milk.
To make ricotta and recover the rest of the protein (or go, “all the whey”), we go back to the kitchen.
THE HEAT IS ON (AGAIN):
The Chemistry and Physics of Cheese book explains what happens next: the liquid mixture in the cauldron is heated again; it is re-cooked. This time it will take anywhere from an additional 45 minutes to over an hour to get the remaining whey protein to coagulate and float to the top.
At 185˚ for an hour, the cheesemaker must stir constantly. It is a hot and sweaty job so they often accomplish it in the morning. If you ever go to your local cheese shop in Italy and tried to get regional, fresh ricotta cheese after twelve o’clock, you’ll be out of luck. It is too hot to hang over a boiling cauldron during the noontime hours.
The benefit is getting fresh, warm ricotta cheese at 10 o’clock in the morning. Nothing tastes better on bread with a little local honey. We have had several ricotta-making demonstrations at Arucimeli Resort. And if the process itself isn’t enough to amaze our guests, then the flavor is. You can’t find anything else like it in the world. Not even in America.
THIS IS NOT YOUR GRANDSON’S CHEESE:
According to the Oxford Companion to Cheese, sweet whey and whole cow’s milk are used to make ricotta cheese in America. There are some larger cheese-making factories that may include preservatives to maintain ricotta’s shelf life (Sicilian ricotta sours after 2 days in the fridge). We’ve seen several ricotta brands in the United States with an expiration date of over a month. That doesn’t sound good.
Yet there is debate whether ricotta cheese is actually a “cheese.” According to some research, ricotta is dairy but not categorically a “cheese.” It is a by-product of primo sale. “Cheese” is the coagulation of the milk protein casein. Ricotta – as we have explained – is the coagulation of whey protein. In fact, some recent research has explained how good whey protein is for health and muscle growth. But this is a fact that even the ancients were aware of.
RICOTTA’S “SEXY” SIDE:
In The Sex of Men in Pre-modern Europe, Patricia Simons presents a fascinating argument for the power of this humble cheese. Producing ricotta is an ancient craft, dating back to the Bronze Age on the Italic Peninsula. Because of this ancient tradition, it has been around in cuisine – and in the local culture – for thousands of years. As we have shown, the making of ricotta is the art of getting the milk hot enough to where the whey floats on the surface; where the cream rises to the top. This idea became a sexual innuendo for most of the Renaissance.
Simons argues that ever since the 1430s, ricotta was used as a metaphor for sexual activity. It’s connotations with “lusty indulgence” can be most clearly seen in Vincenzo Campi’s masterpiece Buffonaria, “The Ricotta Eaters” of 1580. In this painting, Simons states, the protagonists are depictions of the Commedia dell’Arte characters, and the symbolism of their actions is evident.
The woman on the far right is a prostitute and the men all vulgar farmers. The figures in the painting look out at the viewer, instigating the sexual suggestiveness of the ricotta. Even the spoons in the painting are sexual innuendos. One man is holding a ladle and is the one who, “has had too much” of this lust and desire so that his mouth is over-flowing. Campi’s painting demonstrates how strong the innuendo was in the popular culture of the 1500s.
It’s amazing how a simple cheese can have such a twisted history. However, an understanding of ricotta’s erotic past sheds new light on the significance and history of the cannolo – but we’ll save that for another blog.
Until then, regardless of its history, ricotta is a fabulous cheese, no matter how you cut it.