CUTTING THE CHEESE
Sorry, couldn’t resist. But I’m not just being cute. This morning I visited the Caseificio Polito, a well regarded mozzarellaria just two miles north of Agropoli on the road to Paestum. And the name of this famous cheese, always made from buffalo milk in its authentic version, derives from mozza, ‘cutting’, for reasons to be explained.
This area has long been famous for its cheeses. Pliny the Elder in the first century CE was already singing the praises of the cheese of Campania, but apparently he was speaking of cow’s or sheeps’ or goats’ milk cheeses. Buffalo were introduced to this area probably only in the ninth century.
The word mozza appears in a cheesemaking context in 1481 in the works of the Florentine Giovanni di Paulo, but the diminutive form mozzarella shows up only much later as a type of provola, the generic word for a ’tested’ or fermented cheese. Ergo provolone, ‘big provole’. Reference to our cheese shows up in 1570, so, by American standards, mozzarella still has a pedigree.
When I say ‘this morning’ I mean early this morning. Strangely, Fernando, Fabio, Katuscia, even my trusty photographer bailed on me. Something about the notion that 4 am was the time for any sane person to be asleep.
But, like many artisinal food processes, cheesemaking imposes its own time schedules, in this case, the evening and morning milkings. The Polito brothers, Nicola and Francesco, divide the responsibilities, Francesco overseeing the bufala herd out in the countryside and Nicola the lavoratorio along one of the main arteries between the two towns. Campanian bufala are real prima donnas, each with her own name and handler, who not only calls her by name but actually sings her to her milking.
When I arrived, most of the evening’s milking was already in two large stainless steel fermentation vats and had been cultured with whey from a previous batch and had set a soft curd. But this curd had not been treated with enzyme like our little goat milk cheeses from Castel Velino, and so had a glossy sheen and the mild, creamy taste of fresh milk.
Shortly thereafter Nicola gave the crazy American the universal Italian sign for “check it out!”, a slight tug with one finger on the skin under an eye, then made a sign for sleep and disappeared into the office for a snooze. A lot of cheesemaking involves waiting for microscopic critters to do their thing, and it doesn’t pay to be antsy. Meanwhile Sergio, who has worked at the caseificio for forty years, was busy cleaning equipment, something all the workers did at available opportunities. He then took a simple wooden baton which looked like nothing so much as the end of a broom handle, ran it around the perimeter of the curd to separate it from the walls of the vat, then neatly sliced it into eight wedges to facilitate the drainage of whey. Meanwhile a large plastic tub of whey sat next to the cheese vats, and Sergio introduced steam through a pipe from a large boiler at the back of the workroom to heat the whey to near boiling, and set up small perforated plastic containers on a drainage table. First we were going to make ricotta, a real ri-cotta, ‘re-cooked’ product in this case, that is, a secondary product made by ‘cooking’ the whey left from another cheese until the residual proteins coagulate and form the tiny curds that we recognize as ricotta. But in this case Sergio added about five gallons of reserved whole milk to the whey to enrich the product.
When the mixture reached the proper temperature and the curd began to collect at the top of the whey, Sergio and Giovanni, who had arrived from the farm with the morning’s milking, began apportioning ricotta into the containers to drain whey. They used the same clever little scoops we had seen at Castel Velino. After every shred of curd had been gleaned, Sergio again heated the whey, this time to 94°C, and continued the process, recovering far less ricotta the second time around. The little baskets of ricotta were carefully arranged in styrofoam boxes and whisked into the cooler to be sold later in the day.
Next Sergio began the process of separating the curds and whey of the primary cheese. He placed a large stainless steel colander, something like the metal basket you can get in a large pasta pot, into the vat, pressed down to release whey, in this case into the pot, and suctioned it into another whey vat with a plastic hose attached to a pneumatic pump. Nicola appeared to check the consistency of the curd, feeling it gently, squeezing a bit, and then slicing it into large curd cakes, roughly a foot square. Next he took a small portion in a plastic strainer to the boiler to blast it with hot water and then manipulated it quickly by stirring it with a small wooden stick, kneading and stretching it to create the stringy, plastic texture of mozzarella. Not ready. He repeated the process at intervals, each time removing more curd cake to the drainage table and cutting it into slabs, which he folded and stacked to drain even more whey. This is the classic cheddaring process, in fact.
So far the whole process had involved several hours of waiting on my part, but I am oversimplifying the process; the pros were constantly busy cleaning, rearranging, testing, all in near silence and with balletic coordination. When Sergio showed me a fancy gizmo which he identified as the ‘mozzarella maker’, I confess I was worried the whole trek might well be pretty anticlimactic, an industrial process masquerading as artisinal cheesemaking. But by now yet another worker had arrived, a young woman who appeared to be in her thirties, and the real magic of mozzarella began. Nicola checked the curd one last time, even titrating a portion in this case to be absolutely sure of himself; the implements were quickly put in position, and Nicola demonstrated what separates mozzarella from cousin cheddar.
The magic of milk is its proteins, and we all remember from high school chemistry and that DNA model we made for extra credit the helical arrangement of protein molecules. That configuration makes proteins ideal shape-shifters, what the chemists call denaturation. A protein will change form in the presence of acid, heat, even physical manipulation. That’s the magic of pasta filata, ‘kneaded paste’ cheeses like mozz and provolone.
Nicola gave the signal and Giovanni ran several curd cakes through a shredder, then dumped them into a shallow tub. Again, just like cheddar. But now Nicola blasted the mozze, ‘shreds’, with near-boiling water from the boiler, took his little broom handle and began swirling the curd around the tub to stretch it and expose it to the steaming water, and almost instantly before my eyes the curd became a solid mass of glossy lactic love. Meanwhile he took one of the little hand strainers and, periodically pushing the mass of cheese to one side, strained more and more whey through a fine strainer and into a whey vat. As Nicola finished one batch, Sergio and Sofia placed the large ball of mozz into the gizmo, now fitted with a rotating drum with concavities, and as the drum slowly turned, out popped little bocconcini that fell into a trough of fresh water. Some of these the two transferred to a vat of brine, others they grabbed, stretched into cheesy snakes, and quick as a flash twisted into the pretty little mozzarella braids that are so famous.
Eventually some 200 bocconcini were produced, and the crew moved to the production of the larger, classic mozzes. Nicola would grab his glistening paste, mold some of it into an orb, and offer it alternately to Sofia and Sergio, who would expertly pinch off just the right amount with their two thumbs and drop the little orange-size balls into more water.
The whole procedure was so quiet and coordinated it was like magic. Four hours of patient (or impatient in my case) waiting, thirty minutes of intense activity, and a whole day’s supply of cheeses was ready for the public.
And actually there is at least an even chance that even this magic has ancient roots, minus some of the technology which makes the procedure faster and more cost efficient but doesn’t really alter the fundamentals. Pliny the elder could very well have been praising ancient ‘mozzarella’ made from cows’ or goats’ milk. The Roman agronomist Columella describes in some detail the making of a pasta filata, right down to the braided and other fancy forms. Buffalo milk mozzarella has a long and distinguished history which is well worth preserving. But Fabio and one of his numerous foodie friends have already experimented with making a goats’ milk pasta filata cheese from the goats of the Cilento and Fabio declares it a complete success. Perhaps some day we will be able to get yet another literal ‘taste’ of ancient life. I know some grad students at the University of Salerno with the passion for food and tradition to make that happen. In the meantime, I now have an even greater appreciation for this traditional craft.