A Sicilian tradition

At 5:30 a.m., it's chill with only a bare cool hint of dawn. Etna is for once a clear pastel outline against her own pinky smoke. By the time we make it to the farm at 6:30, the ricotta is almost finished being made.

This particular farm is outside the tiny town of Vizzini, nestled in the hils southwest of Catania. So early, it is quiet and serene. The ricotta makers get up very early - 3:30 - to milk the sheep and start the cheese, before it gets too hot.

The ricotta is made in a tiny tiled concrete hut, with an enclosed entryway of galvinized tin. Inside is hot as Hades; an older man, portly and short and white-haired as only a Sicilian can be, sits stirring the pot, sweat dripping off him. The pot is copper, about two and half feet tall, its bottom wider than its top, a shape more conducive to the even distribution of heat.

The shed is too hot, and we escape to the relative coolness of the little entry, where a few thick sticks are wedged caddy-corner, with several drooping, gourd-shaped cheese strung up and one or two dinner-plate sized rounds of aging ricotta rest on a board.

The process of making ricotta is a fairly simple one, but one that takes experience to do right. We watch the cheesemaker, who is, we discover, 71 years old; his companion is younger by at least two decades. We ask questions; they all want to talk and explain at once. Between them and Tanino trying to translate, we're lucky to get any straight answers.

The fresh sheeps' milk is poured into one of the pots and placed over the single gas burner set an inch or two off the floor. The caglio, a substance produced from the lining of a sheep's stomach (rennet in English), is added, which causes the milk to thicken. "That's natural," says the cheesemaker, "that's the way to do it."

The first cheese to emerge from the cauldron is tuma, a very soft, tasteless cheese. When we asked what one did with it, they said that the most common recipe was to slice it thinly, drizzle it with olive oil, dip it in egg, and pan fry it. It is also reworked into other cheeses.

The leftover milk is still being cooked, slowly stirred and carefully watched. Salt is added for flavor. Then time for experience: the time has come, and he stops stirring. He watches the foam on top intently, waiting for the precise moment for it to clot. At once, it is done, and off goes the burner, and he springs into action. A little bit skimmed off the top, and then he begins to bring up big ladlefuls of the steaming, chunky ricotta. To one side is a stainless steel sink with about 20 small (hand-height), plastic, mesh baskets; the cheese goes in here to drain.

Of course, as honored guests, we must have the Sicilian ritual of easting this spanking fresh ricotta. So out come the glass bowls, and he slops in the hot stuff. The odor is strong, slightly goaty. With big spoons, we taste it tenatively: it's good. It's thick, salty, and strong in a sweet sort of way. Eaten with bread, it soothes and tones down the gamey flavor; as it cools, it coagulates and firms a little. It's rather like eating ricotta flavored yogurt. It's very filling; it's understandable how they make a meal out of it.

Some of the fresh ricotta is set aside to harden; heavily salted, after a week it is fit to be used as ricotta salata ("salted ricotta"), a firm cheese to be shredded over pasta, especially pasta alla Norma.

And later in the morning, after the ricotta has settled a little, the cheesemaker piles it into the back of a tiny, beat-up, pale lemon yellow Fiat; it's specially equipped with a cooling unit, shelving, and rusty old scale. He's off to drive the streets of Vizzini, crying it for sale -- "Ricotta! Ricotta!"

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Copyright 1998 by Jennifer Tyson