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Sicilian Cheese
by Roberta Gangi

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Wedge of Sicilian pecorino cheese, made from sheep's milk.Purists, as well as the Italian Ministry of Health and the food labeling bureaucrats of the European Commission, will tell you that cheeses, by definition, are aged milk products. That excludes most ricotta (cottage cheese) and mozzarella, and perhaps even Greek feta, from the list. In other words, there's a difference between curd and cheese. This hardly seems the place to debate the matter, but we'll focus on "hard" (aged) cheeses made here in Sicily. Even without ricotta, the list is a substantial one. With exceptions like soy cheese (which resembles tofu), all traditional cheeses are made from some form of milk, whether it's from a cow, a sheep or a goat. What makes cheeses different, apart from the source of the milk (and even the variety of cow or goat), is the culture and aging process used in the cheese's manufacture. That's why ricotta differs from feta, though both are made from the milk of sheep or goats, and it's why English cheddar differs from Sicilian provola, both made from cow's milk. Even if the same method, culture and bovine species were used, Sicilian provola would still taste different from a hypothetical English variety because the livestock of both islands graze in different pastures, producing milk that tastes different. This all seems slightly arcane, but it's good to know something about cheesemaking when comparing different varieties of cheese.

Sicily's milk-producing livestock production consists of sheep, goats and cows, in that order. In practice, more Sicilian cheese is produced from cow's milk than from goat's milk, but there are more goats than cows in Sicily. Virgil and other classical writers mention the flourishing export market for Sicilian cheeses in Greece. Certain Sicilian cheeses made in ancient times are still made today, though others were introduced by the Arabs, Normans and Longobards during the Middle Ages. The Italian government has established rigid standards defining particular varieties of cheese, with mixed results. Prominent traditional successes are northern Italy's Parmesan and Gorgonzola, easily identified and protected. It is true that many traditional Sicilian cheeses are made from sheep's milk, but some of the better-known ones are made from cow's milk. Here are some of the better known Sicilian cheeses.

Pecorino, as its name implies, is made from sheep's milk ("pecora" meaning sheep). It is true that Sicily's sheep population is ever diminishing, but in Italian regions, only Sardinia presently raises more sheep than Sicily. Like Tuma, Pecorino is sometimes flavored with peppercorns or other spices. Made throughout Sicily, where it may be considered the most widely produced aged cheese product, it is a favourite for grating over pasta. Its taste, though sharp, is often less pungent and dry than that of Caciocavallo, despite a distinctive flavour and texture (it crumbles and flakes easily).

Caciocavallo is made from cow's milk, though its cryptic name literally means "horse cheese" --the Sicilian word "cacio" sharing the same root as casein while "cavallo" means horse. Nobody in Sicily has milked a mare lately, as far as I know. (There's a theory that the cheese owes its name to the manner in which two bulbs were attached by a string and suspended from a beam "a cavallo" as though astride a horse.) It takes at least eight months to age Caciocavallo properly, achieving a sharper flavour in about two years. Caciocavallo is a good complement to stronger wines, and widely used for grating over pasta. Indeed, it is a favourite of Sicilian chefs for use with pasta. It's usually shaped as a large wheel. "Caciovacchino" was a similar product made in times past.

Canestrato is made from whole cow's milk, sometimes diluted with that of goats or sheep. Its name derives from its aging in baskets (canestri). It is quite similar to Pecorino, made with the same process, and there is a theory that Canestrato was developed to obtain a similar product while using cow's milk. Pecorino (see above) is made from sheep's milk. Its form is usually cylindrical, weighing as much as thirty pounds (about fifteen kilograms). It is usually somewhat sweet until aged more than fourteen months. Sicilians prefer to consume Canestrato as a table cheese with wine, fruit or both.

Piacentinu, famous in the province of Enna in central Sicily, is made from sheep's milk and flavored with saffron, which gives it a deep yellowish hue. The name comes from the Sicilian word cognate to piacere ("to like").

Provola, which comes in regional Sicilian varieties (Nebrodi, Ragusa, Madonie), is made from whole cow's milk. There's also a tasty smoked form, and it's the classical complement to hams. It assumes a sharp flavour when aged. Made using a very old method, Provola is usually formed into a bulb, then suspended from a ribbon or string for aging. This gives it a pear shape, with each bulb weighing a kilogram or less. In general, the more mature the Provola, the deeper yellow its rind.

Tuma and Primo Sale are known, in some forms, as "Vastedda" in some parts of Sicily, such as the Belice Valley. Made from sheep's milk, it is usually called Tuma when tasted right out of the mould, Primo Sale when salted lightly, and Vastedda when aged slightly longer. Like Pecorino, Tuma is sometimes flavored with peppercorns or other spices. Unlike Pecorino, it does not age well and is best served with ham, wines and fruits as a table cheese. It has a sweet taste not unlike that of Provola, with an equally rubbery texture.

Maiorchino, the name possibly based on that of the island of Maiorca, was supposedly introduced by the Aragonese Spaniards. Made in the wooded Peloritan and Nebrodi mountains of northeastern Sicily, it contains roughly equal amounts of whole milk from native breeds of cow, sheep and goat.

Ragusano, made from cow's milk, has a mild flavour. It is made in the province of Ragusa in southeastern Sicily. A number of other regional Sicilian cheeses are made from goat's or sheep's milk. Several that should be mentioned are Capra (Messina), Fiore Sicano (Palermo), Cofanetto, Ericino and Caciotta degli Elimi (Trapani).

Ricotta Salata is an aged, salted Ricotta (cottage cheese whose Italian name literally means "re-cooked") made from sheep's milk, produced in the Sicilian heartland. Usually only the rind is actually salted heavily, leaving the core mild and quite sweet for an "aged" cheese.

About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary history, and several articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.

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© 2003 Roberta Gangi