Friday, July 9, 2010


We are often delighted and a bit amused with how laid back Italians are about matters of time. People just don’t seem to be as frantic as they are in the States. Things get done in Italy, more often than not done well and with pride...but not necessarily very quickly. I wonder if that is a function, in some small measure, of their Roman heritage. The Romans, you see, did not have minutes. None. Nada. Didn’t even have a word for the concept. Our word minute comes from the Latin minutus, ‘small’, as in minute, My-NOOT. The timekeepers that Romans had were just not practical for measuring such small increments of time.

One of my mentors at Chapel Hill wrote a very thought-provoking article about “Life without Minutes”. Can you imagine NOT being late for work, or for an appointment, or to pick up the kids at practice, or any of the dozen other minute-functional episodes we Americans confront in a typical day? The smallest time increment the Romans had was the half hour, so I suppose if you showed up an hour late, old Marcus Cato might be a bit peeved, but otherwise he’d just relax, have a little vinum, maybe hobnob with his chums about that young whippersnapper Gaius Julius, and be happy to see you when you appeared. As anal as I am about punctuality, that seems like heaven to me: a system that compels you to chill out and take life a little less seriously.

But there is one area where the Italians have a serious, chronic and urgent need for speed, and that is on the roads. To an American, the typical Italian driver drives like a pipistrello out of Inferno.

Which is ironic, since it is absolutely impossible to go fast through any but the most modern of Italian towns. The speed limits in towns are a clever little joke that we all wink and chuckle at. Most towns here date from the Middle Ages or before, and streets are often one-lane at best. The first time we were here we rented a little Ford Fiesta, the smallest of Ford’s European models at the time, because it was all we could afford. That was the smartest stupid decision I’ve ever made. Time after time I blessed Katie (Amy was five and she always christened our cars) for being able to maneuver through lanes where a larger car could not.

There was one instance when we were driving through Perugia, a beautiful Etruscan/Roman hill town in Umbria, trying to find the Centro, the center of the ancient city. God bless the Romans for the city grid plan; hill towns are gorgeous, but their tortuous streets are sometimes all but impenetrable. We finally just decided to keep going up, up, up until we couldn’t go up any more, on the theory that the best defensive position for the important stuff was at the top of that hill. We drove up a one-way street, winding along as the road became narrower and narrower, until we came to a stone portal on the other side of which was a sidewalk. What to do? The street was one way, and we didn’t have room to turn around if it had not been. Finally I got out of the car and walked over to the nearest shop, a sort of open-air barber shop as I recall, and asked in my bad Italian, “Signori, dov’è l’uscita?” (Sirs, where’s the exit?). Uproarious laughter (I kept half of Italy in stitches that trip) and all four men pointed the sidewalk! It wasn’t a sidewalk at all, it was a street!

Well, we inched our way through, Amy giggling the whole time as her Mom moaned and peeked from behind the hands she had clasped over her eyes. And, sure enough, out we popped onto the perimeter of the piazza. My advice to you: if you ever rent a car in Italy with the intent of actually seeing anything but the autostrada, get a little one. Yeah, yeah, I know all that lore about the big ones being safer. Forget it. It doesn’t apply when you’re trying to stuff 20 pounds of machina into the 10-pound poke which is an Italian viale. Get the small one and remember that the most dangerous car in the world is a safe SUV with a loose nut behind the steering wheel.

So this time you may be sure we rented a small car, in this case a little Daewoo hatchback whom we’ve named Bianca. And she is bravissima, negotiating streets and highways with grace if not speed. The only serious issue she has is with the air conditioning. Bianca may be of Asiatic extraction, but she is a thoroughly assimilated Italian, and every time Sandy turns on the air she literally makes a coughing sound, and does so periodically thereafter just to let you know how disgusted she is. If we are climbing a major hill or the flank of a mountain, the air simply has to go off.

One thing that helps in Italian towns, and on the highways too, for that matter, is the Italian love of tondi (roundabouts), and I have to say that they work remarkably well because everyone is so cooperative. The key to using the tondo is to be assertive but not aggressive. Everyone expects you to poke your nose into the flow of traffic, they’re even anticipating it, and as often as not they’ll resent it if you don’t, because it interrupts the flow of traffic and slows everything down. In any case, we have seen exactly one semaphore on this trip to Italy, ONE! And where was it? Why, on a main highway outside Tavernanuova, at the crossroads with what appeared to be a pig trail. Evidently just one that was slated for removal but someone hasn’t gotten around to it. Please refer to remarks on time perceptions.

Maybe it’s because they know they’re going to encounter such delays in the towns that the Italians drive like hell on the highways. The speed limits on highways are a clever little joke that we all wink and chuckle at. Think nothing of seeing a Lancia tooling down the autostrada at 100 mph. If you drive like me, they will appear as a speck in your rear view mirror and by the time your mind has registered what you’re seeing, they’ll be a speck on the forward horizon.

On the state highways there is less scope for such frivolity, but most of the new state roads are built with extra wide lanes, and it’s just expected that people will pass constantly. The white line in the middle of the road? It's to mark the imaginary passing lane that we all know is there. See that Alfa tailgating you? Don’t be alarmed or angry, he’s just preparing to pass. And everybody cooperates! Cars being passed will courteously move as far to the right as they safely can to allow the car overtaking to scoot around as quickly as possible. If there is oncoming traffic—oh, yeah, they absolutely do pass in the face of oncoming traffic—cars coming from the opposite direction will scoot over in the other direction as well. If it looks like a particularly tight squeeze, cars on both ends will often brake to provide the extra three millimeters the passer needs to squeeze in at the last possible second.

I’m telling you, guys, it’s a thing of beauty if you can control your nerves. At this point the only passing situations that completely freak me out are the ones where a car is passing a semi and there’s another semi approaching. But I’ve seen it happen a half dozen times since we’ve been here!

So Sandy and I just habitually hug the line on the right side of the road and try to enjoy the show. And on the autostrada we generally stay in the right lane and poke along. No problems, right? Some of the most hair-raising episodes I’ve had in Italy were in the right lane on the autostrada, tooling along at a respectable 90 kpo, 60 mph, when I drove up on a little Fiat Cinquecento (refer to previous blog), with a nice little Italian nonno going 25 mph on the interstate. It’s just not something an American expects, and twice I’ve almost sent Nonno flying.

But what to do about those pesky towns if you’re seriously hooked on speed? Why, get a moto (motorcycle) instead! Then you can weave in and out of traffic with reckless abandon, causing motorists to dodge you and seriously threatening pedestrians! On the highway, you can also dodge and weave, but at 80 mph! Oh, and by the way, that helmet strapped to the seat? Remember, it's a fashion accessory.

I’ll admit it, I enjoy the escapades of Italian drivers. But are they really so acrobatic that they can get away with such frolics? In a word, no. I’ve never heard an Italian admit it, but they are paying a grim toll for their addiction to the fast lane. For several years now Italy has had the highest rate of motor vehicle deaths of any European country, and the Poles are their only serious competition. The Italians are paying in tragedy for their need for speed, and, more tragically still, a disproportionate percent of the toll is their young people. With appalling regularity, life in the fast lane for Italians is leading to death in the fast lane.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


I am seeing more and more of an Italian legend here, the beloved little Fiat Cinquecento, perhaps the world’s most heroic car. The Cinquecento has become an icon, and Italians are scooping up the classic models and dragging those old antiques out of the hay barn to gussie them up and give them the love and respect they so richly deserve.

The Nova Cinquecento (pronounced CHEEN kweh CHAIN toh), so-called after the size of its motor, was launched in 1957 by the Italian auto giant and continued production in some form or other until 1975. Like its German cousin, the classic VW Beetle, the 500 was designed to fill the post-war demand for a cheap, practical city car which would obtain excellent gas mileage. It was more successful than its designer, Dante Giacosa, could ever have dreamed.

The classic 500 has a 479 cc two-cylinder, air-cooled motor. That probably doesn’t mean a lot to many of you, so for comparison, my small Mazda truck has a 2,600cc motor and many SUVs have motors in the 4,000 cc range, almost ten times the size of the 500’s. But in a country starved for gasoline, the tiny size and the efficient engine of the 500 make sense. Again, for comparison, Italians today pay about the same in real dollars for gas as they did in ‘57. My last trip to the pump I paid 1.65 euros per liter. I’m too lazy to do the math, but that’s somewhere in the range of 7 US dollars per gallon. Our little Daewoo Matiz, Bianca, set us back about $50 the last time we pulled into the pump. Efficiency is a must here unless you’re just irresponsible or addicted to conspicuous consumption.

The original 500 was slightly less than 10’ long, featured ‘suicide doors’, the ones that were hinged at the back, and a canvas sun roof that folded back. It was also available as a slightly larger four-door station wagon with a correspondingly bigger motor. Through the years it went through several permutations, but the basic design and motor were never changed. In 2007, Fiat launched a new version of the beloved little car, similar to the relaunch of the Beetle, to capitalize on the growing nostalgia. Based on our highly unscientific research, they've allowed the Smart Car to steal a march on them, and it will be a long time before they catch up, if ever.

One of the most beautiful 500s I’ve seen belongs to our host, Rolando, and is parked in the carport on the far side of the house where it is protected from the weather. It is spotless, with the classic beige color that practically screams 500, but with gorgeous red interior and black retractable roof. Obviously this is the ‘bebe di Rolando’.

And why not? The 500 is as heroic as it is cute. The little car is legendary for its tenacity and spunk. In May 2007, for example, two Aussies drove their 1969 ‘Bambino’, the nickname the 500 receives in Australia, around the world, making it the smallest car ever to ‘circumnavigate’ the globe. The couple drove the Bambino from Vladivostok, Russia to Garlenda, Italy, thence to Belgium where it was shipped by cargo liner to New York City, then driven across the Unites States to Anchorage, Alaska where it received a hero’s welcome. The trip covered 32,000 kilometers (18,900 miles) in 99 days. Bambino was then shipped home where it received another hero’s welcome and a well deserved riposo.

But the most remarkable 500 feat, at least to me, happened right here in Agropoli, as reported by my font of information, Fernando. Some fifteen years ago no fewer than 12 Agropolitans managed to cram themselves into a 500 and proceeded to drive from San Marco to Agropoli, a distance of about ten miles. I am shocked but delighted to report that car, driver and passengers all survived the trip just fine.


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.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


If you’re easily offended you may want to skip this one; I’m going to use the ‘p’ word. There’s just no way to understand the Mediterranean Diet without confronting the deep-seated Italian love of pane, bread.

And I shall be unapologetic about using the word; despite the relentless attempts on the part of some food Nazis to the contrary, bread is, always has been, and always will be, good food. You could make a case that man’s co-evolution with various grass seeds is the basis for all civilization. It was grass seeds that convinced paleolithic hunter gatherers to settle down and become farmers. It was grass seeds that 'domesticated' humans, that is, convinced them to give up the yurt and settle down in a proper domus (house). Think of corn, rice, quinoa, barley. But in Italy, ancient and modern, that love affair has been with members of the Triticum family, the wheats. And at least as far back as the early second century BCE that love affair has been manifested as leavened bread cooked in a wood-fired oven.

So it was that, several days ago, I made my way at midnight to the Forno Antico Biscottificio on the outskirts of Agropoli. The proprietor, Elio, had been kind enough to give the pazzo Americano access to his facility.

This was traditional baking on an industrial scale, if that makes any sense at all, for this Forno was actually four forni (ovens), three easily capable of baking 70 loaves of panoni at a time, and one monster probably twice that. Such are the financial exigencies of modern artisinal food in Italy: adapt or die. In fact, in this town of some 26,000 inhabitants, a number that grows to 40,000 on summer weekends when the beaches are packed, there is only one other paneficio in town.

Still, the basics of the procedure are there, as are the grueling work and the dedication to craft. When I arrived the forni were being fired for the night’s baking and the breads were being formed. Singh, a young man of Indian extraction, was using a blowtorch to fire up the fuel, contained in a pan at the front of a metallic arm connected to a powerful fan and auger. And the fuel was quite a surprise; the Forno uses hazelnut hulls which they buy by the truckload! While some traditionalists sneer, it makes all the sense in the world; Italy has suffered from deforestation for at least 2,000 years, so wood is an expensive fuel which is minimally renewable, and the nut hulls are otherwise a waste product. Plus, they never really touch the floor of the oven so there are no cinders and ash to remove. But Fernando tells me that some people complain when they don’t find little fragments of charcoal in the bottom crust of a bread because it means it wasn’t cooked in the traditional way. O tempora! O mores!

After the hulls were lit, Singh cranked up the fan and within ten minutes there was a blazing fire in the fire pan and the auger began slowly advancing more of the hulls as the original ones were spent. He then proceeded to repeat the process with the other two forni in this area.

Meanwhile, in the forming room, Elio and another Indian worker, Parmjit (is finding labor in the food industry as difficult in Italy as it is in America?) were forming loaves. Parmjit took small doughs and ran them through a roller machine which flattened the doughs and rolled them neatly into panini, ‘little breads’, which Elio put on a proofing tray. They also showed me panini loaves combined with cured sausage and caciocavallo, a sort of all-in-one sandwich.

Elsewhere Celestino loaded 20 kg bags of semola, hard-wheat flour, of grano integro, whole wheat flour, and so-called 00 (‘double-O’) flour, pretty close to our all-purpose flour, into two enormous mixing bowls, added water and leaven, and began the kneading process. Think of a Kitchen Master on steroids, with a dough hook two feet long and 2 inches in diameter. (Continued below)

When the dough was properly mixed and kneaded, Celestino, a talented mime who kept me in stitches much of the night, used the pneumatic hoists on the mixers to raise and tilt the dough into the forming machine. This monster simultaneously weighed, divided and spat out panoni doughs with a very satisfying “splort!” The doughs rolled down a chute and onto a forming machine which rolled them down another chute as perfectly round doughs which Celestino placed, two abreast, down the length of a proofing tray about 14” wide and 6’ long. The trays were about 4” deep and lined with lengths of cloth. The bottom one was on a tram, and as one was filled Celestino would simply stack another on top and fill it in turn and before long he had a stack of trays about five feet tall. The stack could then be moved aside and another stack formed.

By now Parmjit and Elio had finished their smaller breads, placed them on trays which they slid into a mobile cart and wrapped and covered the cart with cloths to provide a cozy proofing environment for them as well. Parmjit and Celestino then took a number of previously proofed doughs, expertly flattened then into something that looked like pizza doughs and, using a simple food can about the size of a 14 oz can of tomato sauce, created holes in the middle of each dough to create a sort of giant bagel and then placed them back in the proofing trays, Parmjit napping the cloth so that loaves could be loaded cheek-by-jowl and yet never touch. These would become ciambelle, breads about 14” in diameter and 4” high with an incredibly crunchy crust.

Meanwhile Giuseppe, undisputed capo fornaio, head oven man, called for two of the forni to be heated to 300°C (572°F) and the third to 320°C (608°F). Those babies were hot! Parmjit and Singh continued to monitor the firing process.

The real key to a forno à legna is in the brick construction. The heart of the oven is a round platform paved with huge bricks over which a dome of the same material is constructed, a so-called beehive oven. The design goes back to the ancient Romans and from them to the more ancient Greeks and perhaps from them back to the Egyptians. Easily 3,000 years old and still effective. That’s because terra cotta is capable of retaining heat for a very long time.

When the ovens reached the required temperature, the firing trays were simply retracted from the back doors of the ovens and the doors shut and sealed. If the fornaio needs to shed a bit of heat, by the front door of the oven is a small metallic box attached to a chute which can be removed partially or totally to allow some of the heat to disperse.

The bakers had already been working with incredible efficiency, but now the process became extremely intense. It was a thing of beauty. Singh had scoured the oven with a long-handled brush dipped in water to created the steam that gives good ‘oven-spring’ and gelatinizes the crust to give that perfect crunch. A stack of proofing trays had been positioned by the oven. Parmjit or Singh would grab the length of cloth on which the breads were proofing in the trays and give it a tug to separate adjoining loaves. Celestino would then pluck a loaf up quick as a flash so as not to distort the shape and place it on the waiting pala, bread shovel, which Giuseppe proffered to him, and Giuseppe would quickly run the shovel into the forno and with a quick jerk of the hands leave the breads in exactly the right position so that they didn’t touch another but the oven could be loaded to the max. And the process was repeated. Giuseppe loaded from left to right or vice versa and half way through the process all three men as well as the stack of trays would reverse position and the process proceed from the opposite side. When the oven was fully loaded Giuseppe slammed the door and sealed it below with a length of cloth soaked in water.

The first breads to be fired were the ciambelle and the first ones came out literally five minutes after the first loaf went in. Giuseppe wielded the pala again, nabbing a loaf, pulling the pala back and giving a small jerk backward to flip the loaf onto the threshold of the oven. Using his bare hands, which must by now have the consistency of asbestos, he then tossed it into a waiting hamper and another baker would stack it on end to create ranks and files of breads. (Continued below)

A problem developed in Forno 2 and there was some loud talk about mamas and idiots which I couldn’t quite follow; a few of the ciambelle were a bit too charred in spots. To me they looked like the most delicious ones of all.

By the second round of baking the ovens had cooled to a mere 280°C and things were a bit more relaxed; a slower oven of course allows more margin for error. This round and succeeding rounds were for the main stars of the show, the panoni. By the end of the third round the ovens had lost enough heat that Giuseppe called for them to be re-fired briefly. And then the process continued, round after round of delicious breads tumbling out of the ovens and stacked in hampers to be loaded into the bakery’s van and delivered all over Agropoli fresh and steaming.

On my first trip to a forno à legna years ago I showed up about 10 am and was mystified by the absence of goods. “Sir, where are the breads?” The baker and the neighbor with whom he was gossiping laughed uproariously. “Come back tomorrow at 7.” For an Italian, fresh bread should be very fresh indeed, and that may involve a daily trip to the panetteria. But once you’ve enjoyed the real thing, it’s hard to settle for an imitation.

Monday, July 5, 2010


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.