Long before I crossed over into Puglia I had started making phone calls to well-connected food friends, asking about la Burrata di Andria. One name kept coming up, the producer that tops everyone’s list.A few more phone calls later I found myself in the back of a caseificio, a cheese-maker’s work shop, where four generations work together in perfect silence. To say that fresh cheese is made of just milk, salt and rennet is a bit misleading, the way you might say that fine porcelain is just made from fired earth. Milk is heated, rennet from a veal’s stomach is used to coagulate it and salt is there to give it flavour. This is basic cheese-making and up to this point, it’s the same with every cheese maker I’ve ever visited, which by now must be in the hundreds. But if you stretch the curd, you can begin to make pasta filata cheeses, or stretch curd cheeses, such as these cute, happy little provole. La provola, o la scamorza as it’s most often called where I live in the Salento, is widely-consumed, both as it is- at the table- or altered by heat in the kitchen. Grill one of the smoked versions and you’ll think you died and gone to heaven. Sprinkle it with a little sea salt and a dash of bitter, extra virgin ogliarola and you’ll have one of best three-ingredient dishes in all of Italy, a nation famous for our th ree-ingredient dishes. The most famous fresh cheese in Italy is fior di latte, although you the reader most likely know it as mozzarella. Here though, mozzarella used to be made from the milk of the Asian water buffalo, as the animal gives milk with a higher fat content. Fior di latte was the version made from cow’s milk. The line has been blurred nowadays, and court cases have been won and lost on both sides. I asked Domenico to walk me through the making of the most sought after fresh cheese in the entire South of Italy, La Burrata di Andria. It was one of those moments, when you realise you’re seeing something that wouldn’t be easy to repeat: The son showing me how to make one, the father narrating the cheese’s history. For a brief moment, I was living inside a documentary. Francesco explained that burrata doesn’t go that far back, roughly 100 years, and that it was started in the country farm houses nearby. ‘It was a poor person’s cheese’ he said, ‘with strong cultural prejudices, probably because the cheese was formed with human breath’. Fresh cheese is stretched and formed into a ball. Francesco shows me a ball of handmade butter, which may have been the original filling for the first burrate, as the name would seem to imply (burro means ‘butter’). Like all cheese makers I’ve ever met, his hands were waterlogged to the point of looking painful, an image you can’t really ever shake off. First a bubble is formed using a jet of air. Then, using a special nozzle, la burrata is filled with water, just like a balloon. At this point, you could easily mistake it for a cuttlefish. Maybe even a squid. Cream and ‘rags’ of cheese are mixed together until they form an almost egg-drop consistency. This is the filling.
The filling goes into the little satchel and tied closed. ‘How long will this keep like this’, I asked Domenico. He placed the little drunken-snowman-of-a -shape on the stainless steel counter as if it were his first. ‘I guess it could last 3 or 4 days but I don’t think they ever do’. And indeed at the school, that is way we treat them as well, as perishable as fresh bread. Before I realised it they had filled several bags of fresh cheese and had loaded my arms with them, my mention of bike travel never seeming to register. As I scratched my last notes in my book I watched as the father and sons continued to talk about the cheese, clearly in a way they never had before. I wish I could say that I ate their burrate on the side of some mountain over looking some silvery lake speckled with bobbing birds but it didn’t happen that way. It was an impromptu picnic. In a tiny park. Wine from the bottle. Fresh bread torn rather than cut. An old worn dishtowel on my lap. A bent fork that had recently spent time repairing a bike. I wish I could say that I appreciated the cheese for its artisanal merits, for its hand-made-ness, as it were. But it didn’t happen that way. If you would have passed in your car you would have seen a man in dirty bicycle clothing, sitting on a park bench, eating from saddle bags, a bottle of wine at his heel, his forehead sandy with evaporated salt. That would be outside though, looking in. For me, it was the first time in a month that I had filled my mouth with the flavours of home, my eyes spilling as I ate. I’m nearing the Salento. It won’t be long now.