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sicilian cheese

By Patricia Michelson

We searched high and low for artisan Sicilian cheeses when our original producer retired. It was an association we had enjoyed for many years but it did give us a chance to explore what was now being made and get to know someone new. Little did we know it would take a year to find a cheesemaker and in the end we chanced upon an Associate Professor of Agriculture based in the very region we were exploring. Sr. Massimo Todaro has been instrumental in keeping alive the traditional Pecorino Siciliano and Piacentinu Ennese not only by encouraging the continuation of the cheesemaking but also delving into the Belice sheep breed and their productivity as well as helping farmers raise their animals in a healthy and safe way. The Valle del Belice breed is a result of crossing Pinzirita, Sarda and Comisana sheep and around 60,000 are raised in the south western region of Sicily. The town of Santa Margherita di Belice is situated in a most picturesque part of Sicily where monuments and architectural finds date back to the Sicani, Greek, Roman and Byzantine domains. You can literally walk through history as the area is noted as an area of historical architectural importance.

But probably the town and area around Santa Margherita di Belice is best known in modern times as the backdrop to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), also made into a classic film by Luchino Visconti where he was allowed to film memorably evocative scenes inside the Palazzo Filangeri Cuto. An hour’s drive north you will find the town of Corleone and that name rings a bell I am sure… the family name from the epic The Godfather films. 

So you can see there is much romance and history surrounding this area and having Sr. Todaro help us was such a bonus. He assisted the cheesemaker to get his export stamp and made sure that the cheeses were sent to our depot in Milan without any problems. He was indeed ‘the godfather’ in this enterprise, without any of the drama.

Why I love Pecorino Siciliano is because it has this very unique taste. The soil produces pasture that is stubby and often bleached by the sun, but the winter is when most cheese is made and grass is at its best.  The AOC cheeses must be pasture fed with home grown hay when needed. Tasting the cheese you will have a salty almost harsh flavour but then the sweetness hits you and that little sulphur edge is due to the organisms within the soil. We use this cheese in our Pesto recipe and although this is rather indulgent we think it gives a huge amount of flavour to the final taste.

Our third cheese is Ragusano which is a cow’s milk cheese with a lovely sting to its taste. We have been working with this cheesemaker for many years now, and they have only recently got a fax machine making it a little bit easier to communicate with them as previously we had to call before they went out to tend the farm and it meant a really early call!

The choice of two Tuscan natural wines will make a very interesting match since their style of skin contact for a longer time enables the white wine to have a slight oxidisation giving a fruity richness to the flavours. The red wine is a very expressive fruity style that picks up flavours of the cheese and anything else you are eating giving a wonderful combined warmth and freshness.

Eating these cheeses together with the wines will give you a glimpse of heat, earthy sweetness of wild herbs and a real sense of time standing still.

 
 
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PECORINO STAGIONATO

SANTE MARGHERITA, BELICE, SICILY
UNPASTEURISED EWE’S MILK
TRADITIONAL RENNET

Todaro Massimo has made sure this protected ewe’s milk cheese continues its traditions within the region known as one of the 7 wonders of the world.  The Semi Stagionato is half-matured to give a lovely savoury, spicy hit of flavours with that familiar zing on the tongue as herds graze on pastures or sweet hay.  Good with a robust dry red country style wine & crusty bread.

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PIACENTINU ENNESE

DI VENTI PIETRO, CALASCIBETTA, ENNA, SICILY
UNPASTEURISED EWE’S MILK
TRADITIONAL RENNET

Made using an ancient recipe from Enna that adds saffron to the curd. The curds are washed and only a little salt is added making this a rather gentle mellow flavoured cheese in comparison to the more robust Sicilian cheeses. Together with the peppercorns the flavours are unique as saffron, when married with different ingredients, brings out their unique flavours and undertones adding a floral subtle sweetness.

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RAGUSANO

FLORIDIA DAIRY, ISPICA, RAGUSA, SICILY
UNPASTEURISED COW’S MILK
TRADITIONAL RENNET

This stretched curd cheese – formed into a squared-off log – is quite unique, with a spicy taste and a chewy open texture. Every cheese has the official DOP seal impressed into the rind, and is made in the same as Caciocavallo, Provolone and even Mozzarella. The cheeses are made from November to May, although January-, February- and March-made cheeses are deemed the highest quality, when the Iblei Hills surrounding the area are studded with fragrant herbs and flowers and the grass is not so scorched and dry as in summer. Notes of burnt orange, crusty bread, pepper and the buttery straw punctuate the long, complex arc of flavour.

 
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LA CERRETTA WINES
SASSETTA, LIVORNO, TUSCANY

La Cerretta biodynamic farm is fixed crop rotation, producing wine, oil, fruit, chestnuts, cereals, forage crops as well as cattle and poultry. There is also an Agri-Tourism business too. The vineyards are in Pian delle Vigne, the best position for making great wine. Hand picked and selected grapes are vinified and immediately put into barrels.

MATIS
100% Vermentino  
       

Brief contact with the skins, no added yeast, sulphites and additives; no filtering & fining. 50%steel, 50% barrels 6 mths & 2 mths in bottle. The creamy fruit is fragrant, fresh & beautifully balanced. Perfect for Pecorino & easy drinking.

SOLATIO DELLA CERRETA
80% Sangiovese, 4% Cab Sauvignon, 4% Barsaglina, 4% Foglia Tonda, 4% Colorino, 4% Merlot           

No added yeast, sulphites and additives; no filtering & fining. 1-2 yrs in oak, 10mths in bottle. The rich fruity style is balanced & perfect for roast meats, Pecorino & Creamy Blue’s.