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A Cheesemaking Lesson at Podere Paugnano

Marlane Miriello,
Marlane is launching a cooking school in Tuscany with fellow villagers that will take visitors into the kitchens and farms of local residents who will teach cooking secrets and garden wisdom handed down through generations.

The first full day of Il Campo Cucina’s program began with a pecorino cheese making lesson on a beautiful sheep farm just outside of Radicondoli called Podere Paugnano. Giovanni and Giovanna Porcu, who came to Radicondoli as children from Sardinia, were our hosts.

We arrived at 10:00 AM, donned paper slippers, jackets and caps and entered a bright white room equipped with stainless steel kettles and instruments for the making of Giovanni’s delicious cheeses. In the center of the room, a giant kettle of sheep’s milk was warming and Giovanni began to explain the steps for making pecorino cheese. First the milk must be warmed to 38 degrees centigrade. Today’s lesson was in the making of stagionato pecorino, a hard, dry cheese about the consistency of parmesan. The four basic types of pecorino cheese are fresco, marsigliano, semi-stagionato and stagionato; but Giovanni also makes a delicious sheep’s milk ricotta which has a tangier flavor than the cow’s milk ricotta we normally find in the supermarkets in the States. He also makes several variations on each of the four types of cheeses.

As the milk was warming, Giovanni added a rennet made from artichokes. He prepared a sort of infusion from the thistles of artichoke plants and poured a measured amount into the milk. Rennet is the ingredient used for the thickening of the cheese and as most vegetarians know, it is usually derived from the lining of the intestines of sheep or cows, rendering the cheese non-vegetarian. They would be delighted therefore to learn that it is possible to make cheese with vegetable rennet.

Once the milk reached the right temperature, we all were invited into the house for a cheese tasting. As we sat down to eat in our paper costumes, we felt much like children at a costume party. The silly looking hats set off riffles of giggling that, mixed with the jet lag and excitement over arriving in Tuscany at last, broke the ice and allowed the group to begin bonding in earnest.

The enormous table, set for twenty, was impressive. There were large boards with slices of four kinds of cheese within reach of each setting, as well as jugs of wine and water, platters of sliced pear and bread. One of the breads was a very thin, unleavened sheet the consistency of communion wafers which Giovanna told us is the traditional bread of Sardinian shepherds. They could take this bread out in the pastures where they might wander with their flocks for weeks and it would never get stale.

We tasted two kinds of pecorino fresco, a soft, mild cheese that tastes wonderful with pears (or just about anything else for that matter). Then we tasted two kinds of pecorino semi-stagionato, which is firmer and has a slightly nutty, sharp flavor that tastes wonderful with honey and walnuts.

After thirty minutes, Giovanni called us back into his fattoria to watch him finish making the cheese. He first cut into the thickened milk with something like a long knife, and to our astonishment it had gelled into a semi-solid state! Then he used an enormous whisk that looked like a cosmic magic wand to break up the curds until the mixture was smooth and creamy. He gave us all tastes. It was delicious!

After that, he raised the temperature on the pot and the curds separated from the whey. He reached inside the pot with his gloved hands and began to mold the curds into a large ball. I assume this part of the process is the trickiest, as he spent a good deal of time with his hands submerged in the whitish liquid working. In the end, he pulled out a large mass of congealed curds and pressed it into a round wooden cheese form. When all of the curds had been used up, Giovanni poured off the liquid whey into an urn to be fed to the lambs. He said that sheeps’s milk whey is great for the skin. Ann Cole, one of our students, asked for some to take back to her apartment and he gave her a large bottle (judging from her glowing appearance through the trip, I would have to assume the stuff really does work!).

Then it was time for lunch. Much to everyone’s delight, Giovanna had prepared a variety of Sardinian treats for us to try. We began with two fried antipasti, Seada and Cocconeddos di Ricotta.

Then we had her delicious handmade ravioli stuffed with ricotta and mint and topped with tomato sauce.

For our secondi, we had roast lamb with a green salad followed by a dessert of sweet fried ravioli called seada dolce that is filled with ricotta and orange zest then sprinkled with sugar and lemon peel. After that we were offered coffee and finally tiny thimble glasses of Mirto, a Sardinian digestivo liqueur with a sweet, herbal flavor. Finally, we all hugged Giovanna and Giovanni and their daughters Tamara and Natalia good-bye, vowing to return another time.

It was a day to remember, like a trip back in time.

For more information about Il Campo Cooking School of Radicondoli, click here

For more information about Podere Paugnano, click here

Photographs by Stephen Hamilton, copyright 2009.

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