Starting to get the itch to visit gardens again. The closest garden in the area is the Reggia di Caserta on the outskirts of Naples. It’s a biggie – sometimes described as Italy’s Versailles. But before leaving the Amalfi Coast, which in addition to being a region of spectacularly beautiful views, is also the birthplace of the insalata caprese, of which I had eaten quite a few by now, I wanted to see how all that mozzarella was made.
The website for Caseificio Michelangelo promised “an unforgettable experience at the oldest cheese factory on the Sorrentine peninsula”. Relying on websites in the past had resulted in several totally forgettable experiences. Hotels seem especially good at finding absolutely brilliant photographers, so I didn’t know what to expect.
When I first contacted them, they had no other bookings for that day and could not provide a tour for just one person – disappointing, but totally reasonable, I thought. We left it that I would contact them again once I arrived in Sorrento.
In the meantime, I already knew that to make the real thing, you start with – not cows – their milk is used to make Fior di Latte – but with bufala (water buffalo).
A few years before, I had seen a few of them while on a trip to see the Greek temples of Paestum (Staying Put, March 23, 2014).
Some people make it a day trip. Paestum is 92 km south-east of Salerno at the eastern edge of the Amalfi Coast. Salerno is where most people who, after driving the Amalfi Coast road and coming to the conclusion that it’s something they’d like to keep to a once-in-a lifetime experience, pick up their rental car.
92 k is, of course, a mere hop, skip and a jump by Canadian standards. But keep in mind that Michelin, which I have found to be remarkably accurate, gives the time to cover those 92 km as 2 hours, 23 minutes.
The water buffalo is probably the descendant of wild oxen that had been domesticated in Asia and later brought to southern Italy – Magna Grecia at the time – by Greek settlers.
A bit out of focus, but even with that metal rod, there was no way I was going to fiddle around with the settings on my camera for this shot. If this one is average, it weighs 5 quintali. 500 kilos. The gestational period lasts 10 months and the mother nurses her baby for 270 days. Mercifully for Mom, multiple births are extremely rare.
Fast forward a couple of years and I’m back in Sorrento, hoping to visit the Michelangelo Cheese Factory. By the time I arrived at the hotel I was a hot, sweaty, tired mess. The hotel isn’t all that far from the train station – it was lugging my suitcase up the hill at the end that almost did me in.
The path leading to the hotel looked promising. And as soon as I walked through the front door of the villa I knew I had landed ‘butter side up’. They may have had a good photographer, but the real thing was beautiful too. And the welcome as warm as promised. I dumped my stuff in my room and rushed out to the terrace, where the young woman who had greeted me brought me an ice cold lemonade made with lemons from their garden and a slice of lemon ricotta cake. Heaven!
When I mentioned Caseificio Michelangelo, my hostess was very enthusiastic about their tours – which of course left me in the rather peculiar state of feeling encouraged and discouraged at the same time. But she did promise to get in touch with them for me.
The next morning brought good news – a couple had booked a tour – I could join them if I wanted. They were newlyweds from Naples, so the tour would be in Italian. As long as they didn’t slip into napoletano – the local dialect – I would be fine. In fact, taking a tour with locals usually makes things even more interesting – you get their take on things. Sara, our guide for the day, would pick me up at 9:30 and then we would pick up the honeymooners who were staying in a hotel closer to the caseificio.
They were adorable – not at all upset to find out that a woman “of a certain age”, and a straniera (foreigner) at that, was horning in on their tour. And while they did speak with strong, southern accents, I needn’t have worried. As it turned out, initially it was Sara who struggled. It was her first time doing the tour in italiano. There was a spirited discussion about how Italians don’t get out to see the treasures of their own country. It all sounded very familiar. How many of us Canadians have seen less of our country than many visitors? But it didn’t take Sara long to get the hang of her script in Italian and soon she was rattling away at top speed – in italiano and al volante (at the wheel). Being driven around by a local was, as always, a fascinating experience, the only downside of which was to make me dread even more the day I would have to pick up that rental car.
Before we can enter the room where the cheese is made, we have to don special apparel for visitors – apron, cap and blue booties. All terribly flattering of course.
Since the workers were just getting set up, Sara began by showing us the cella frigorifera Up to 1,00 cheeses can be aged in the refrigerated ‘cell’ at a time. The darker balls hanging along the back wall – caciocavallo – have been affumicati (ah-foo-me-cah-tea). Smoked.
As with most cheeses, the basic process is fairly straightforward – heat milk, add starter, cool, drain, shape and age. Sara shows us what gets things going – rennet – a mixture of enzymes that, when added to the heated milk, cause it to separate into curds (the solid part that will become cheese) and whey (the liquid that gets drained off.)
The art of making the cheese, Sara tells us, lies in knowing exactly when each stage of the process is complete.
Then came the delicate process of cooking the curds. If you’ve ever cut into a mozzarella ball that was hard and rubbery in the middle, it’s probably because the curds weren’t cooked properly.
The curds are put into a bowl of hot water. Gradually that water is replaced with hotter and hotter water until eventually it reaches the boiling point.
The cheese-maker, Sara’s uncle Luigi, had been quite talkative up to this point, but now he got very quiet, his attention focused on the curds – a goopy, tangled mess that reminded me of science projects we did in Elementary School. As he massaged the goopy mess, as if by magic (which is what science always seemed to me), it slowly became smoother and shinier and started to come together.
Next he tore off a small hunk of cheese and shaped it into a small ball – like a bocconcino. Bocca means “mouth”. Adding “ino” to a word turns it into a smaller version of itself, so a bocconcino is a “little mouthful”. The he picked up a pair of scissors and started cutting into the little ball.
As we watched the flower unfold, another mozzare word came to mind. Mozzafiato – mots-suh-fee-ah-toe. Literally, ‘to cut off your breath’. With all the spectacular scenery everywhere you look, you hear it a lot in this part of Italy.
Now it’s our turn. In Italy, a great deal of respect is still shown to the anziani (elderly), so the giovani (young people) respectfully insist that I go first.
To end our tour, Sara brought us each a plate with samples of the cheeses we’d seen. And a flask of local red wine to wash it all down. It was only 11 am, but I’d been up since dawn, so … Buon appetito!