ragusa: i bimbi, i formaggi e domani

by Silvestro on January 18, 2010

I think we’re all guilty of it a bit, this assuming that Sicily is always a bit behind the rest of Italy. I live in the South and even I do it.

I couldn’t have been more wrong though, especially with what is happening in Ragusa.

The fact that it involvs a 700-year old cheese makes it all the more captivating.

If you haven’t been, Ragusa might be the most enchanting city in all of Italy. It looks like you perfectly poured a bag of Legos across a mountain top, and then someone recreated it in stone, mortar and twisty-turny streets.

But down in the valley, you’ll find some of the best cheese made in Europe.

And that’s where the story starts.

Down a long and stony road, lined with cyprus trees and Mediterranean scrub, you’ll find a pretty pink villa that houses a consortium that has taken upon itself the unlikely task of making sure that famous cheese from Ragusa, il Ragusano, doesn’t fall from grace.

And they’re going about it in the right way too, by focusing on the next generation.

I was able to time my visit today to coincide with a group of school children taking part in a two-phase operation.

They gathered in a tight group around the cheese makers, nearly every child filming the activity into their cell phones for their parents back home.

Once it has been demonstrated, the children reach in to form the cheese by hand, a process that had a profound impact on me as a child as well.

Caglio (‘rennet’ in English), procured from the stomachs of lambs or baby goats, is added to whole, unpasteurized milk until it coagulates. The curd is stretched into strings.

It’s then portioned and severed by hand and knife.

The tell-tale shape of a snowman, or closer to the Italian, a horse’s saddlebag is formed and the cheese is tied for hanging or brining, depending on the discipline.

I was lucky to snap this picture, lost as I was in forming my own little cheese. The enthusiasm of the 11 year- olds had nothing on my own.

At this point, this fresh cheese could be just about any from Southern Italy: Una provola, un cacio-cavallo, una scamorza, etc. It’s cheese, but just.

In Ragusa though, this is just the starting point.

The real Ragusano is formed into massive logs and brined for weeks in salt water and then suspended with jute ropes, allowing the passage of air all around the cheese. A happy biproduct of the hanging as that it gives Ragusano a slight bend in the middle. See just one and every one after that will be instantly recognizable. Not a bad thing for a cheese to be given today’s choices.

Cheese makers from several non-European nations were on hand as well, but asked not to be photographed.

‘Why are you here’, I asked a young Japanese woman in full cheese-making regalia.

‘Why wouldn’t I be’, she responded. ‘A chance to make the best cheese in the world!’, she added, as if the question had been sophomoric to begin with.

But before I said ‘two parts’, and beyond just a simple school outing or field trip, the children took part in diligently-administered research. They were given the choice of eight kinds of cheese, from aged-artisanal to industrial, pre-wrapped individual slices. The children were asked to choose their cheese for their sandwich, predicting how satisfied they’d be with the taste.

They were monitored with video and marked their choice with their hands, giving only their age and place of birth. What the researchers wouldn’t share with us was how the information would be used, exactly.

What was clear though, was that the researchers were bound and determined to understand tomorrow’s consumers’ choices, and how Ragusano would play an important part in that.

Not long after leaving the facility I stopped in nearby field and watched a cow eat, as she watched me. Her milk would eventually go into making Ragusano cheese, a rich, complex and nutty cheese of incredible depth. She somehow seemed to know it as she chewed, unphased by me and my camera.

A few hours later we had dinner at Duomo, which is perhaps one of the most famous restaurants in Italy today. It has happens to be one of the best, which isn’t always how it happens. The chef, Ciccio Sultano, not only came out to greet us but constructed a grilled vegetable timpano, topped with well-aged Ragusano.

It is one of my favourite things I’ve ever put into my mouth.

The taste was like turning a prism in the light, only instead of colours, it changed in nuances. Citrus. Salt. Almonds. Walnuts. Cream. Grass.

Walking back to the hotel, I thought about aging rock stars and out-of-work fashion designers and how nothing dates someone quite like saying, ‘Kids these days’! To be relevant, you have to continue to engage, to offer something worthwhile to each and every generation. Descending one hill and ascending the next, I thought about how forward-thinking this is of the Sicilians, how touching to see how pivotal one cheese can be to a region’s identity. And how right they are to take such an active stance.

Tomorrow I’ll head for Noto, to try my own cheese upside the more aged versions. Tonight though, I’ll just walk up a twisty-turny street, up a steap hill, tipsy on incredible wine, supremely content on a rich cheese with a seven hundred-year long story. And a future, nearly as secure.

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