Several weeks ago I found myself in the heart of Sicily, surrounded by a group of amazing women who shared my love for food and writing. There’s a chance I could round up a group of like-minded folks right here in New England, but, well, sometimes you just need to get away from it all for it all to come into focus. And the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School on the Regaleali Estate of Tasca Wines is a ridiculously incredible place. So incredible that it’s difficult to adequately describe in simple words – you just have to go there.
Following a delectable breakfast on our first morning at Regaleali, our small group boarded a bus and cackled like hens as we crept around the hairpin turns and up the quilted hillsides for a field trip to Filippo’s farm. Filippo Privitera is a shepherd in every sense of the word. He and his modest crew milk a few hundred sheep by hand twice a day. By hand. Twice. Every day. No modern milking machines, no antiquated milking machines. By hand. Filippo feels that the only way to thoroughly know the herd, to notice any problems, to ensure their health, is to milk them by hand.
We arrived at his farm after the morning milking had been completed. There was a slight presence of fatigue in the air – the farm hands milled about a bit weary (while our day had just begun you could tell they’d been working for hours already), even the sheep dog padded around lazily. The Sicilian air was already hot, but still refreshing to our queasy selves exiting the warm bus. A few breezes, and a moment to look out over the pastoral panoramic, provided adequate rejuvenation before we entered Filippo’s cheese-making room.
We gathered around while Filippo added a bit of rennet to a large (50 gallon?) vat of warm sheep’s milk. Loose solids (called cagliata) began to form on the top of the milk as the curds, with a bit of Little Miss Muffet magic, began to separate from the whey. We pulled aside a plate of cagliata to taste before the bulk of it was gently cut into small chunks. Filippo transferred all of the curds into baskets where they would be pressed and aged to make tuma (ready within a week) or pecorino romano (aged 3 to 6 months or more). (The designation of pecorino simply means sheep’s milk.) The remaining liquid whey was piped into another vessel and heated to 70 C (158F), where additional curds developed and were pressed into more baskets to create ricotta. Nothing was wasted. Everything was delicious.
Rennet is a natural enzyme present in the stomach of animals. I’m fascinated by the discovery of certain edibles…like who figured out you could eat a thistly artichoke? And what about the sea urchin – who stumbled on that and decided to eat it rather than curse its spiky shell? As I wondered about the revelation of rennet and cheese-making, Fabrizia Lanza (our splendid hostess and owner of the cooking school) offered, “If you carry around a sheep’s stomach full of milk and let it bump up and down on the side of your donkey all day, eventually you will end up with at least some yogurt.” She’s quite brilliant, that one.
There is a dairy farm near our home – Sweet Pea Cheese – where they raise goats and cows. Despite a reliance on milking machines, life seems very similar. Milking twice a day, every day. Each girl must still be positioned at the machines, wiped down to prevent contamination, and led back to pasture. Every day. Twice a day. There is no break for the dairy farmer…who works relentlessly and then goes on to exhibit super-human traits during the sleepless lambing or kidding season. We stopped by their farm yesterday to bring some cows’ milk to friends who had moved out of town. The boys grabbed a few single-serve bottles of chocolate goat’s milk and proclaimed it to be the best chocolate milk in the world. Normally I not a big advocate of adding chocolate and sugar to milk, but sometimes exceptions are meant to be made.
Several months ago, when a random cheesey inspiration hit, I ordered a bottle of rennet from Amazon. A few days later I was attempting homemade mozzarella with several gallons of Sweet Pea Dairy’s amazing milk, only to discover my thermometer was off by a few dozen degrees. The result was edible, but a bit too reminiscent of salt water taffy at best, Silly Putty at worst. There may be future attempts at cheese-making, but perhaps impetuous chefs like me should leave the curds and whey to the professionals, and avoid anything that requires a thermometer. Or exact measurements. Or a timer.
Actually, if you have access to really good fresh milk and cream (ideally from a sheep, goat or cow), you might venture into the tasty world of panna cotta. Panna cotta means, quite simply, cooked cream. It is quite forgiving, receptive to endless flavor variations, and remarkably tasty. Like creme brulee tasty, but so much easier. It goes something like this:
Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta
Combine 1 cup whole milk with 1 packet (or 2 1/2 tsp) unflavored gelatin in a medium saucepan. Let the gelatin ‘bloom’ for a few minutes….which simply means you need to let the gelatin granules slowly start to absorb some liquid and soften a bit, otherwise they will never properly dissolve later in the recipe. And it will be grainy and lumpy and ick.
After about 5 minutes, put the pan on the heat (medium should do) and stir it while the gelatin dissolves. It doesn’t have to boil, just warm up. If you aren’t sure whether all the gelatin has dissolved, just dip your (clean) finger in the mixture and make sure there are no little granules remaining.
Next, add 2 cups of heavy cream, 1/2 cup of granulated sugar and a pinch of salt.. Continue stirring – use a whisk or a wooden spoon. Add 1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp of real vanilla). I find it easier to add the whole bean, then remove it later and scrape out the yummy seeds. The bean flavor seeps into the hot liquid, and the hot liquid softens the bean so it’s easier to scrape out. Simmer it for a few minutes until sugar is fully dissolved (see finger test above if unsure). It should be hot and steamy, but don’t bring it to a boil. (I’ve been meaning to try this with brown sugar, for a bit of a caramelly spin.)
Remove the pan from the heat, and remove the bean from the pan. Carefully cut open the bean and scrape the seeds back into the creamy mixture. (Discard the pod.) When the mixture has cooled slightly (a few minutes), slowly whisk in 1 cup sour cream. Whole plain yogurt works well here, too, especially tangy goats’s milk yogurt. (This is dessert, people, don’t skimp with skim.)
Pour the mixture into 6 or 8 small glasses, cups or ramekins, and chill it for at least 4 hours, or overnight. Some folks like to get all fancy and unmold the panna cotta onto a plate. I prefer to serve it in the container it has chilled in, usually a jam jar, where I’ve left plenty of room for tasty garnish. Like caramel sauce and whipped cream. Or fresh berries. Or lemon curd. Or whatever your heart desires.
Happy cooking. And when you use fresh dairy in your kitchen, remember the shepherds and the dairy farmers…and be grateful.