Buffalos and Torn Cheese

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.

Insalata caprese served at in the village of Amalfi

Southern Italy’s culinary take on the country’s flag – insalata caprese.  In Amalfi…

The only problem is you have to drag your eyes away from the view  to look at the menu.

…Ravello…

Pranzo con vista. (Lunch with a view_.

…and on the island of Capri where it was first 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.

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Floating around in a light, home-made brine, mozzarellas of various shapes absorb a hint of flavour and a natural preservative.

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).

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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.

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That narrow strip of asphalt you see winding its way around the village?  Welcome to the SS163, aka the Amalfi Coast road.

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.

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The only time I had seen such clean cows or bulls before was
when they were all spruced up for the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto.

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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.

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So-o-o cute. Almost looks like a little lamb. And yet, in just a few years…

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.

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Entrance to Villa Oriana Relais.

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!

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Lugging my suitcase up that hill hadn’t been much fun, but what views!

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.

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Views to the west.

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.

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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.

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The ‘cell’.

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Some of the provolone were enormous, giving rise to several references in napoletano to various parts of male anatomy.  Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

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Just a bit of rennet gets things going.

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 heated milk is starting to separate.  The skill of the cheese-maker lies in knowing when each stage of the process is complete.

The heated milk starts to curdle.

The art of making the cheese, Sara tells us, lies in knowing exactly when each stage of the process is complete.

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After a while the cheese-maker decided, just by eye-balling the vat, as far as I could see, that it was time to lift the semi-solid curd out of the vat.

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The curd is cut into chunks and placed on a slanted surface to allow the whey to drain off.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Finally the cheese was cooked to his satisfaction.

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Now that the tricky part was over, he hammmed it up for us.

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Then he showed us how some of the most popular shapes are made, starting with a treccia (tray-chuh).

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Next, an anello (ring) – a popular shape for wedding receptions and fancy buffets.

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Next he tore off a small hunk of cheese and shaped it into a small ball – like a bocconcinoBocca 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.

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Mozzarella gets its name from mozzare (mots-sah-ray) – to tear or cut.

As we watched the flower unfold, another mozzare word came to mind.  Mozzafiatomots-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.

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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.

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It’s not as easy as Luigi made it look.

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But I’ve done a bit of braiding in my days so, with a little help “pinching” the braid at the end, mine came out not too badly.

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Antonella’s came out quite nicely too.  Notice she’s not wearing a wedding ring.  It’s safely tucked where women have been tucking such things for centuries, so that it doesn’t go astray while she makes her braid.

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Even with Luigi’s help, Enrico’s was a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

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But it had been a lot of fun and one more tourist and two very much in love Italians were delighted to have learned a little bit more about their rich culinary heritage.

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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!

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