Aged white sheep’s cheese made from whey.
I had been reading about all of the wonderful local food festivals in Tuscany in the fall and hoping we would be able to find one during our stay. So when we saw this poster in the Etruscan town of Volterra advertising a white truffle festival that would be held there in two days, we decided to stay on an extra night!
The festival was everything I hoped it would be. October is the season for white truffles and portobello mushrooms in Tuscany, and truffles were definitely the featured item. There were truffled cheeses, truffled salumi, truffled polenta, truffle pasta, truffle cream, truffle oil, and just straight up truffles everywhere you looked.
Best of all, the local farmers were offering samples of their delicious wares so I was able to taste all sorts of truffled delicacies as well as cheeses, meats, sauces, chocolate, and honey. The honey stand was particularly fun, as we were able to compare and contrast many different kinds of delicious honey. My favourite was the linden – a medium sweet, slightly bitter yellow honey that is extracted from the blossoms of linden trees.
By far the best room was the cheese room – a room filled with local dairy farmers and their endless assortment of mouthwatering Italian cheeses. There were wheels of pecorino romano of every description, and we were able to taste many different kinds. The artisans cover their pecorinos with different ingredients as they age – from chianti to truffles to hay – and it takes on the flavour of whatever it is coated in to extremely delicious effect. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the hay-covered cheese, but it turned out to be one of my favorites.
I spotted a farmer with a small stand in the corner with big wheels of creamy white cheese and made a beeline for his stand. I had been hoping to find some ricotta salata to smuggle back with me to the United States, and here it was – fresh from a Tuscan farm. Pinch me.
Ricotta, meaning “recooked”, is a soft white cheese made from the whey portion of sheep’s milk cheese. The whey is removed during the cheese-making process and recooked to form the soft, creamy, slightly sweet white cheese that is ubiquitously sold in plastic tubs in grocery stores across North America.
Ricotta Salata is a version of ricotta that has been pressed, salted (salata literally means “salted”), dried, and aged for at least 90 days. This cheese is harder and saltier than the soft white ricotta that is so ideal for filling blintzes, ravioli, and lasagna. It is sold in large white wheels and can be crumbled, grated, or sliced and added to a myriad of things including pastas, salads, soups, and pizza.
I purchased half of the wheel and the vendor vacuum-packed it in plastic for its journey home in my suitcase–alongside honey, dried portobellos, fresh pesto, truffle cream, truffles packed in oil, truffle oil, a wheel of chianti pecorino romano, a ball of carciocavallo, a thick slice of hay-covered pecorino, and lots of chocolate.
Since then, I have been sprinkling ricotta salata over pasta, grating it into salads, and eating it sliced with honey. The other night I made a pear and honey pizza using my ricotta salata, 2 of the other cheeses I brought back from Tuscany, and the linden honey I bought at the truffle festival. Once cooked the ricotta salata became softer and creamier like the cheese in a danish, rendering the dish more of a dessert pizza.
My favorite use for the ricotta salata by far is in my dad’s version of Pasta Alla Norma – a Sicilian dish made with tomatoes, fried eggplant, ricotta salata and fresh basil. As luck would have it, my dad was here visiting us just a few days after our arrival back from Italy and made this dish for us. It was fantastic.
I still have more than half of my ricotta salata left, and am looking forward to experimenting more with this wonderful cheese.