In this episode Will Studd scours the stunning countryside of Sicily to discover rare and interesting locally invented cheeses. He meets passionate local dairy farmers who are the survivors of endangered cheeses, samples sumptuous flavoured cheeses with locally farmed saffron and learns a thing or two from Nonna Giovanna about pizza making southern Italian style!!
Something about Sicily
The largest island in the Medditerranean, Sicily is a unique region of contrasts. With its sunny climate and fertile soil, cheese making has featured prominently in Sicilian history from when it was occupied by the ancient Greeks thousands of years ago. At various times throughout history it was also occupied by the Romans, Normans and Arabs, which enabled a rich, diverse culture and a refined tradition of cheesemaking.
Traditional cheesemaking in Sicily
To truly understand the pulsating, passionate world of traditional cheesemaking in Sicily, Will Studd travels to three distinct regions, where three of the most interesting and rare cheeses are produced.
1. Pecorino Siciliano made in the town of Bompietro, Alta Madonna region
Pecorino Siciliano is one of the most famous cheeses produced in Sicily. While Pecorino is commonly flavoured with pepper, chilli or basil, some more unique flavourings include saffron, pistaccio nuts and orange.
Bompietro specialises in the production of Pecorino Siciliano for export, where in the peak of the production season, late Spring, over 5000L of ewe’s milk are used daily.
On a small farm in Bompietro, which is the only producer of orange peel infused Pecorino Siciliano, only 40-50 sheep graze on the wild herbs. According to the farmers, this unique diet imbues the cheese with a particular flavour which is inimitable.
2. Sicilian saffron flavoured cheese farmed on the hinterland provice of Enna
This disctinctly coloured cheese is made using the raw milk of red-faced ewes which are reared in this traditional dairy. The saffron is also grown on the property and the farmers wake before sunrise to pick between two to three thousand saffron flowers!
The dairy visited by Will Studd is the only in the world to produce this endangered cheese and he discovers the unique and age-old tradition first hand.
• The raw milk is heated gently to just under 36 degrees.
• The starter, then natural rennet, made from the dried stomach of a baby goat, are added.
• 5gms of saffron per every 100 Litres of milk is added.
• The saffron is repeatedly rinsed through the milk using sieves to extract the flavour and colour evenly.
• The curds are then placed into traditional rush baskets and cooked in whey.
• Black peppercorns are added.
• The cheese is dry salted bafore it is drained and set in the baskets, then left to mature for several months.
3. Ragusano cheese, made only in the Ragusa and Serocusa provinces in Sicily
This unique flavoured and shaped hard cheese is salty and savoury in taste, and one of the most favoured cow’s milk cheeses produced in Sicily. It is made in large brick-shaped blocks weighing between 12 and 16 kgs called Scalluni, which is the Sicilian word for steps!
The intricate process of producing the cheese “full of personality” is one that cannot be emulated in the large scale factories:
• The curds from the unpasteurised cow’s milk are melted in piping hot water.
• They are extracted from the water and kneaded until rubbery and elastic.
• The hot lump is then pressed into large rectancular moulds to cool overnight.
• The following day the young cheese is immersed into brine baths until a thin rind is formed.
The maturing process is perhaps the most interesting and unique part of making Ragusano.
• The cheese matures by hanging it off ropes that are evenly spaced along beams in dark rooms. Over 10 000 cheeses are matured at any one time “like saddle bags on a horse” and it is often possible to find slight grooves on the surface from the cords.
• The perfect maturing time is between 6 months to a year.
4. Cooking classes with Nonna Giovanna, in Central Sicily
Nestled in the southern hills province of Polermo, lies Villa Daphne, a magnificent home, working farm and dairy. The property is over 2, 400 ha and boasts a flock of 600 milking sheep and 100 cows which produce a variety of cheeses.
Tourists are encouraged to stay on the property and participate in cheese making and cooking classes.
Will Studd learned some original Sicilian recipes from Nonna Giovanna:
Nonna Giovanna’s Proper Sicilian Pizza
• For the dough use: Self raising and plain flour, olive oil, water, two packets of dry yeast and a pinch of salt.
• Knead and allow to rise twice.
• Place a healthy layer into a square tray for a thick pizza base.
• Cover the dough in grated Caccio Cavallo cheese.
• Smother with a good quality home made tomato sauce.
• Add anchovies, olive oil, rosemary, thyme and oregano, and bake.
Sicily’s Famous Melengiane
• Cut thick strips of eggplant and sprinkle them with salt.
• Layer the eggplant into a bowl and leave to rest for half an hour.
• Pan-fry the eggplant until golden brown.
• Layer a baking dish with tomato pasta sauce and place eggplants on top. Then add grated pecorino and fresh basil leaves.
• Layer three times and bake until the cheese is golden brown.