This morning the Astones were kind enough to take us to the farmhouse of some family friends to watch the process of simple farmhouse cheesemaking. But before you roll your eyes over another cheese blog, please read on; this blog is a little about making cheese and a whole lot about a wonderful Itailian family.
The farmhouse was located in the hills north of Agropoli and west of Paestum, beyond Monte Soprano. As we wound around country lanes and through two tiny hamlets we began to worry that Fabio had us lost. At last we arrived in the frazione (hamlet) of Terzerie in the commune (town) of Roccadaspide. We were warmly greeted by Rosanna, a strikingly beautiful woman with piercing eyes the color of the Grotta Azurra, and husband Umberto, a handsome gentleman who exuded good cheer, in the driveway of their beautiful home, styled as a villa, with a veranda on the upper floor which overlooks easily a hundred square miles of Paestum Plain as well as the hills farther north and east, including the aptly named town of Altavilla (lofty villa), one of those indescribable Italian hill towns.
Rosanna immediately invited us into the kitchen/dining area of the home for caffé and we sat as the elixir brewed and made introductions and allowed Filo and Rolando to catch up on news. Umberto and Rosanna have two older children, a son, 26, who works part time and goes to the university, and a daughter, 20, who is also in college. A younger bello regazzo, Vito, 10, joined us later. He looked a bit sleepy and his dad teased him a bit, so we had the feeling that kids in Italy in the summer have the same sleeping habits as their American equivalents. The family was completed by Achille or Achi, pronounced AH-kee, a cute little mutt.
After coffee Rosanna brought out a pail of beautiful rich white milk from the frigo and took us into the carport where she has an incredibly simple cheesemaking set-up. First she filtered the milk, the combined product of yesterday evening’s and this morning’s milkings, through a fine mesh filter to remove any impurities. It was then strained into a large aluminum pot which she placed on a propane burner and cranked up the heat to bring it to boiling and pasteurize it. She stirred it periodically to keep it from scorching. In a matter of seven minutes or so the milk began to boil and Rosanna removed it from the heat and placed the pot into a plastic tub of cold water to cool the milk to blood temperature.
While the milk cooled we enjoyed a tour of the farm, obviously the product of many years of hard work. There was a large garage for cars and farm equipment as well as not one but two of the beloved little Fiat "Cinquecenti" (500’s), the famous little car that you will doubtless remember from “Mr. Bean’s Vacation”. There was a separate building for general storage and farmwork. And then there were the animal stables. In the first section we met four beautiful white goat does, who nuzzled us curiosly, and the little teenaged offspring of one, held in a separate pen. These were the tradtiional Cilentane breed, which Fabio tells me come in white, red and gray. Opposite the goat stalls were hutches with about two dozen bunnies. Sandy was totally entranced by now and I had to remind her that this was a farm and the cute little bunnies were destined to adorn the dinner table soon enough. Out back of the stalls were chickens for fresh eggs, and another set of stalls contained two massive pigs which will be slaughtered come January for lovely prosciutti, pancette, and the dozen other cured and uncured porcine products that Italians love. When I was a kid, we used to say that you eat every part of the pig except the 'oink', and that’s a proverb any Italian farmer would endorse.
Outside the stall were a garden, a small field of wheat ready to harvest, and another small field of medic, the clover-like forage plant that goats love. The goats are fed a mixture of forage but are also allowed every day to roam the hills and forage at will. Goats love herbs, and this part of Italy is herb heaven; Italians swear you can taste the herbs in the cheese. Nearer to the house was another carefully tended garden with enough San Marzano tomatoes to feed half of Campania as well as lettuce, eggplant, squashes, hot peppers, grapes, basil, celery, parsley, and green beans. These two folks were obviously talented gardeners, and the house itself is surrounded by palm trees, magnolias, roses, and other ornamentals. Filo had commented when we arrived on the little potted palm trees that Rosanna had in the yard, and Rosanna explained that two adult palms, easily 25 feet tall, she had raised from scraggly little mutts with only three fronds.
Rosanna now tested the temperature of the milk with a finger and, judging it cool enough, squirted rennet into the pail from a squeeze bottle and explained that she had added a tablespoon. I guess every talented cook eventually learns how to ‘eyeball’ quantities.
While the rennet did its magic we sat in the driveway, enjoying the beautiful vista and the mountain breeze which has been so lacking in Agropoli for the last three days and just enjoyed listening to these folks catch up on the news. Some of it we even understood! Like so many Italians, Umberto has a regular day job, in this case as a prison guard, so that he has a reliable income and can keep the family farm going. Then there was talk of old times on the farm: of hardships, of joys, of threshing with the hooves of livestock and with the tribulo, just as has been done (and continues to be done in some places) in the Mediterranean for 4,000 years, of the women separating wheat from chaff by tossing the threshing product into the breeze, of lovely chestnut torte and torte do grano, a sweet cake made with boiled wheat buds, and of other traditions. Then there was talk of the shocking state of the youth and it was warmly agreed by both Italian and American parents alike that today’s kids are thoroughly spoiled and that it’s just not good for them. Filo was especially incensed by the daughter of a cousin who spent 6,000 euros on window treatments...for just the kitchen!
Rosanna checked the coagulum and found it ready and the cheesemaking began. Placing the pot of milk on a table, she took a perforated kitchen ladle and very gently began to break apart the coagulum, stirring around and back and forth, lifting coagulum from the bottom of the pail and stirring again, until she had broken it into large, glossy curds and greenish whey. She positioned the pail over a bucket and, using only the same simple little kitchen ladle, strained the whey from the curd into the pail, ever patient and gentle, even using the handle of the ladle and her fingers on it to trap errant curd. A few escaped, but this whey was destined to go to the porkers and, as we used to say down home, “It will all come back on the table.” Italians think that their cured hams have such a luscious sweet flavor because the pigs are as spoiled as the younger generation. Ragazzi, ragazze, beware! You could wind up as prosciutti!
When she had drained almost all the whey Rosanna took one of the little plastic cheese baskets I have seen so often, this one about 6” in diameter and 4” tall, and carefull ladled the curds into it, now placed in a kitchen bowl to catch every last drop of the precious, nutritious whey. Filo explained that when she was a girl folks would dip their bread in this whey and eat it thus, just like we used to dip our cornbread in buttermilk, a byproduct of butter-making. The curds filled exactly one of these little baskets, and Rosanna explained that it takes 10 liters of raw milk to make one cheese. Cheese is powerful nutrition indeed, and in a form that is more digestible than raw milk and is safe from the dreaded brucellosis and tuberculosis.
Rosanna revealed that this cheese was her gift to us, a momento of a wonderful morning. Then we moved to the kitchen for some serious business; Filo insists on nothing but the best artisinal products, so she loads up when she has the opportunity: 4 kilos of aged and shrink-wrapped stagionati for Brother Ciccio, 3 kilos for a cousin, 2 kilos plus a couple of fresh cheeses for the Astones themselves, plus three dozen fresh farm eggs. Then Rosanna began heaping on the generosity that we always associate with farm families at home: peaches, eggplants, beautiful green beans—I wondered who was going to walk home, Fabio’s Alfa Romeo was so laden.
Rosanna wanted to cook lunch for us, but Fabio had work at 2 pm and it was already eleven; no self-respecting Italian woman would offer guests a meal that didn’t involve four courses and at least three hours of work. Forgive me if I’m sentimental, but that is part of what we love so much about these people, hard-nosed practicality combined with extravagant hospitality. I dearly hope that someday I have the chance to return for that meal. As much to be around these wonderful people as their wonderful food.