We had a long drive through the colorful scenic Tuscan hills this morning after breakfast on the way to the sheep farm where we were greeted by Giuseppe and his family. He raises sheep and makes prize winning cheese. He starts by taking us to a pasture to see the sheep; explaining that sheep give birth twice a year at Easter and Christmas, and so they have lots of milk from which to naturally and organically produce the cheeses. He has the trophies to prove the quality of his cheeses on display in his great room and its large corner, almost “walk-in,” fireplace with a cozy sitting area in front of it. Adjacent is a built-in wood fired oven and wood storage bin. Our table was set for a few more than the size of our group, the first hint that the family would be joining us.
But first the fourth generation cheese maker asked us to gather around a table to watch him make a small batch of cheese. He explained he was making the cheese using a vegetable enzyme from the Cardone plant from the artichoke family. It appeared that the flower of the plant was dried and then the “choke” pulled out and soaked in water to extract the needed enzymes. After soaking it was strained and the liquid added to the milk. In less than 30 minutes, the cheese began to form. It looked like milk jello as it was firm but still wiggly. Giuseppe used a knife to make vertical cuts, crosswise then lengthwise through the gelled milk. But as he did this he explained that from this one batch of milk he would make three kinds of cheese. The first was this milk jello substance that he harvested from the top, skimming carefully to get only the best of it, called roveggiolo. Next he continued cutting to separate more and more of the whey from the curds. When the curds became much drier, he pull it from the whey, placing handfuls in small plastic cups pierced with uniformly placed holes all around and on the bottom. These, he put into a pan to collect more whey as they sat weeping. Once all the curds had been cradled into the cups, he asked us to start squeezing the cheese. We were told to remove the cheese from the cups and close our hands around it and gently squeeze. Those of us with warm hands would warm the cheese and allow more liquid to escape, creating a smooth texture. If we had cold hands, the cheese would take longer to evacuate the whey and the resulting cheese would be coarser. Since it was a small batch we had this task done in short order.
The third cheese we would make from this batch would be ricotta. This is made by heating the whey that was left taking care not to stop the enzymes, but to encourage the last of the curds to form a soft, by now very tart pudding consistency he called ricotta. Quite a contrast to the way we have made ricotta back at school, using lemon juice in heated milk to separate the curds and whey. But learning that ricotta in this case was the second by-product of making a batch of cheese, reinforced the Tuscan way, that of using every part of the food source and in this way stretching it as far as possible to feed more people.
Before we actually finished our cheese making, our next task was to make the gnocchetti for our lunch. The kitchen was a white room with stainless tables and sinks and a stove. It was barely large enough for the group of us, but that didn’t seem to matter. The dough was already started by “mama” and the wives of the two “best friends,” Giuseppe and Paolo. Hand kneading had already begun, but we soon learned that was not step one. After mixing the flour, eggs, water and a touch of oil, the crumbly mixture was place on a wooden piece of equipment that appeared to me to be an antique “high chair” equipped with a revolving square peg that worked the dough as it was threaded by hand through it over and over again. You could tell that at some point there had been a hand crank to do the turning and whoever invented and made this thing, was probably not still around to see it run by an electric motor and a couple of pulleys.
When the machine did its job, the dough was cut into smaller pieces and picked up by the women who began shaping snake like ropes with it. We were all invited to jump into the operation at this point. Once the rope was just right, it was fed through a more modern gadget that spit out perfectly shapped gnocchitini (thin gnocchi, not made with potato). One person cranked while one fed the rope of dough and another would flour and place in the pan. (note-we made pasta at another small store where we used rice flour for keeping them from sticking together and it worked very nicely).
Meantime Mama was busy demonstrating the old fashioned way to form the shape this pasta. She would place a round of dough on the end of her thumb and pressing in a particular motion would yield the shape of a “lambs ear.” These didn’t exactly match those being produced by the machine, but nobody seemed to care. We wanted to see Mama in action and try a few of our own. Soon we were forming the characteristic texture on them using a small grater turned upside down, sort of a makeshift gnocchi paddle. (wish we had known because we may not have bought a few olive wood gnocchi paddles)
When finished, the gnocchi was ready to be dropped into the boiling water that had been simmering on the stove. The kitchen ladies took over as we were invited to sit at the long communal table that had been set in the common area. Each table with bottled water, jugs of wine, and with colorful chargers of red, silver and green, to match the colors of the line of small Italian flags that were stretched from the ceiling over the table from one end to the other. Each place setting had a bowl for the pasta and a plate to sample the cheeses. Several bottles of “new” olive oil, baskets of bread, jars of pepper jam, and honey were placed at intervals down the middle of the table. The wine was poured as the platters of pasta were placed. They had prepared a cream sauce using their only Gorgonzola style cheese and bits of zucchini, reflecting the late harvest from the garden. It was delicious! We were reminded that this was our main meal so enjoy a second serving.
The cheese tasting plate was next. A medium sized plate covered with wedges of cheeses, from softest to the hardest, we sampled counter-clockwise around the plate. Each cheese was given due time to savor and enjoy as Giuseppe described what how each were made. Right away I had a favorite. It was a soft cheese flavored with white truffles. I was so certain I would like it, but didn’t know how much. Lenore called it “cheesecake.” It was nutty and sweet and creamy and light. We tried hard not to like it knowing we’d not be allowed to take any home with us. Only hard cheese can be taking into the USA. But never mind, the memory is strong and I will look for it from our distributors. As it is I saw many things this trip that are already available in the USA, and it made it easier to pass up this special cheese. We settled on four varieties of the aged semi hard and hard cheeses, one of which was Giuseppe’s father’s recipe that had won lots of recognition. In fact, others in our group seemed to pick allot of the same cheeses that we did.