I met a cheese maker this week. His name is Marco Sotgia. He lives on a 400 acre farm outside Perugia. He has an olive orchard, a vineyard, a cow, a horse, three pigs and 250 sheep. For three generations, Marco Sotgia’s family has been raising sheep and making cheese.
The boys and I spent the entire afternoon at his farm with a group of students from my Italian class. We witnessed the magical transformation of sheep milk into two of Umbria’s most traditional cheeses: pecorino and ricotta.
When we arrived, Marco was just filling up a vat with the day’s milking. We gathered around while he lit a flame underneath and scooped a spoonful of brown paste from a container to add to the milk. This brown substance is rennet, an enzyme harvested from the stomach of a cow. Rennet is the ingredient responsible for separating the solids from the liquid (thus creating the curds and the whey). Not all sheep cheese is made from the insides of a cow’s stomach; there are vegetarian enzyme as well including lemon juice and cardoon extract. Once the rennet had dissolved, the warm milk started to become thick and gelatinous. Marco then broke up the solid substance with a long wooden stick all the while slowly increasing the temperature until it reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point he turned off the heat, and the solids settled to the bottom.
Then Marco rolled up his sleeves and reached deep down to collect the curds. He packed them tightly into a cylinder shaped colander and pressed it all together so that any remaining liquids could drain.
By the time he gathered all the curds, he had filled six colanders. After a while, the rounds of cheese were firm. Then Marco removed them from the containers and added them to a salt water bath where they would bob around for the day. The salt coats the cheese, adds flavor and most importantly, preserves it. Then the cheese rounds sit in a cool, dark room for a month aging slowly until they become pecorino cheese.
Back in the work room, Marco started production of second type of cheese. Returning to the whey, Marco made ricotta. For the second time, he turned on the flame and heated the liquid, this time to 169 degrees Fahrenheit. When it thickened, he spooned it into plastic mesh containers and let it cool. Unlike pecorino, ricotta does not need to age. This soft, mild cheese can be eaten immediately.
Before leaving, Marco gave us samples of pecorino and sent us home with a fresh bowl of ricotta that we ate the next day in class.
Of course, both cheeses are great on their own, but we’ve learned that there are many alternative ways to enjoy each one. Pecorino is found on nearly every menu in Umbria. It is served at room temperature often with several accompaniments including honey, red onion compote, fruit preserves, spicy apple jelly, and green tomato jam.
Ricotta is even more versatile. Mixed with spinach, it’s the most common filling in ravioli. It’s also the main ingredient in many desserts. It can be served as a snack with sugar, salt, or with sweetened coffee on top; or it can be spread on toast with jelly or honey. Most often, we eat it for lunch with tomatoes, lettuce, salt and olive oil.