Yesterday was a good example of how lucky I am to do the kind of work I do. When work is this much fun, I almost feel guilty to call it work.
We went to a local caseificio, an artisinal cheesemaker, which specializes in cacio di capra, goat cheese.
The creamery was located in an agriturismo in the seaside town of Castel Velino, about an hour’s drive south of here. The drive itself was a treat. We entered the Strada Statale 18 here at Agropoli. Number 18 south is a superstrada, not an interstate with four lanes, but a two-lane, limited access highway with higher speed limits. As we headed south we left the seacoast for a while and headed through a ‘gap’ as we say in the mountains of North Carolina and into the Vallo di Lucania, the heart of the territory once conquered by the Italic peoples, the Lucanians. Beautiful mountains, which remind us so much of our southern Appalachians, rise up on both sides, to heights of four to eight thousand feet. The mountains are covered with deciduous and evergreen forests, and on the lower slopes you will see vineyards and olive and fruit orchards. Every five miles or so you will spot another picturesque hill town, with houses clinging to the slopes of the upper reaches and always the silhouette of the mother church of the town, with its campanile (bell tower) reaching to the sky. Often you will also see the ruins of a castle and a tower, reminders that even here in the interior the ‘dark ages’ really were a time of constant turmoil.
We left the highway at Vallo and snaked our way over the southern shank of a mountain and into the valley of the Fiumicello, a branch of the Alento. Back down at the coast we came to Castel Velino Maritima, the seaside port of Velino, and turned back to the east and up a mountain to the sleepy town of Castel Velino Vecchio. Another fairly common phenomenon in this land, cities with an upper and lower section, the lower to facilitate trade and agriculture, the upper behind the powerful ramparts that provided protection from Saracen pirates or the enemy forces of Byzantines, Anjovins, Lombards, Bourbons...the list is too long to complete. Here the lower town has a much less sinister purpose: tourism.
We wound through the sleepy village of Castel Velino, stopping once to ask directions and receiving the simple response, “Sopra, sopra!” (“Up, up!”) Our agriturismo was almost literally at the end of the road at the summit of the mountain, so there was no serious danger of becoming lost. We were lucky enough to take a turn into the wrong driveway and wound up at ‘Il Panorama’ restaurant. Never was a business more aptly named; the restaurant has a huge terrazza and a stunning view of the Gulf of Velia. I counted six different shades of blue, from turquoise to deepest azure. After several minutes of utter confusion (we kept asking for the caseificio and the kitchen staff were understandably mystified) the proprietor offered two glasses of Prosecco and the chance to enjoy that view. Then we were sent on our way.
The Agriturismo I Moresani actually faces north, away from the sea, but has an equally beautiful prospect toward Monte della Stella, one of the tallest peaks in the Cilento. The agriturismo is a family-owned and run farmstead which caters to the tourist trade and includes rooms to let, a huge ristorante with not one but two terrazze, the caseificio, the goat paddock, a horse paddock with equipment for dressage, stables for both kinds of animals, a large vineyard and an olive orchard. The Moresani family is obviously busy. Fortunately, besides grandparents, there are sons, daughters, their spouses, and assorted grandkids. All apparently living in the same household and working together.
We were shown the basic cheesemaking operation by Gino, a son-in-law, whose English was good. Gino explained that the operation was as traditional as they could reasonably make it and still make a profit. For example, the goat herd is a bit more than 100 does from two breeds, but when I asked Gino if they were traditional Cilentane breeds he explained that these goats, of Swiss and French extraction, were literally ten times more productive than the local breed and so the latter were disappearing fast from the Cilento.
When we arrived at the laboratorio a batch of cacioricotta was in the stainless steel fermentation vat and had already been treated with rennet. This is not the ricotta we know, a true ‘ri-cotta’ (re-cooked) cheese made from the whey of another cheese, which still contains considerable protein. This is a whole-milk ricotta. The milk is gradually heated to about 115° F as bacteria of lactobacillus and streptococcus (no, not that streptococcus) species do their magic. Gino explained that the family uses a culture from a previous batch as an innoculant but have it analyzed by a chemist regularly to be sure it is maintaining the desired mix of bacterial critters. Since it would be a while before this batch was ready to cut, we took the time to try sample plates of the cheeses at different stages of ripeness. On the terrazza of the restaurant we were offered five different cheeses from the family, plus a dish of aqua sale, a bread dish which Sandy loves. It consists of nothing but twice-cooked bread (the name biscotto also means re-cooked) which was been dipped in water, salted, and allowed to dry. That’s it! But it puts any saltine to shame. Over this are sprinkled herbs, especially oregano and basil, a tiny bit of garlic, olive oil, and halves of the little grape tomatoes that are so incredibly sweet in this area. To accompany our food we had the family’s vino bianco.
A bit later Antonio, Gino’s brother-in-law, called us back to the creamery. The coagulum had already been cut by an electric agitator and the curd and whey were quickly separating. Antonio used a clever strainer in the form of a large, perforated bowl to push down into the curd and allow whey to collect in the bowl, then deftly poured it onto a sloped platform attached to the fermenter. This platform had a hole at the end to allow whey to drain into a food-grade plastic bucket below. Antonio poured several scoops of whey onto the platform, then several more into other buckets arrayed around his feet as the drainer was emptying.
Before long it was time to form cheeses, and Antonio had several dozen little plastic forms about the size of a small plastic margarine container which would eventually create a fresh cheese of one-half kilo, about a pound. He scooped a container of curd, placed it on the platform to drain, and when the platform was full of such forms went back with a stainless steel scoop designed to channel curd neatly into the forms and refilled each form, now only about two-thirds full because so much whey had already drained, until each was neatly rounded at the top. Then he deftly put them onto a large draining table behind him and went back to filling forms. This table also sloped and channeled whey to a bucket. All this whey, some seven buckets ultimately, will go back to the farm animals as food.
The batch eventually produced about fifty cheeses, and halfway through the process Antonio was already able to flip half the forms to evenly distribute the drainage of whey and create the attractive ‘wicker’ marks that seem to denote artisinal cheeses. Earlier Gino had showed us the aging chamber, cooled to about 48° F, where cheeses from one to eight weeks old were ripening. By the time the cacio stagionato (fully ripened) cheeses were ready for sale, they were about half the size of the original and had a dense, cream-colored rind. This cheese is so dense that it is used for grating like a Parmeggiano-Reggiano.
Of course the highlight of the excursion was when Antonio allowed me to ‘help’ with the process, so I now call myself an honorary cheeseman. I don’t think I slowed him down too much.
Back home at the apartment, fortuitously, Fabio and Fernando dropped by to show me the proof copy of a Cilentane journal devoted to the promotion of the Mediterranean diet, and each had an article about the goats and cheese of their beloved Cilento! Quite a fitting end to a wonderful excursion.
As usual, Fernando is an amazing font of information, scholarly and otherwise. Last summer as I prepared a talk on ancient fermentation, I used for illustration of a modern analogue the little goat cheeses made on the Greek islands which are drained in wicker forms. Fernando sent me a picture of several terra cotta forms of household objects on display at the Museum in Paestum. Among these is a replica of just such a little cacio di capra. And then he explained that as a boy he had himself made such cheeses out on the farm! Amazingly, these little cheeses have a continuous history in the Cilento of some 2600 years, and probably a history in the Greek motherland that goes back another 1200. That is a tradition worth saving, it seems to me.