cutting the curd

Ricotta – A True Story

The Renaissance, they say, was born here when the shepherd and cheese-maker Giotto was discovered sketching the form of a sheep. Brought to Florence because of his talents, Giotto went on to launch a new way of looking at the world.

And this is the story of ricotta cheese and how it’s made. It has to be told because so many young American cooks and even cheese-makers have been led to believe that ricotta is made by stirring an acid (lemon juice, vinegar) into whole milk and curdling it. That isn’t ricotta at all—it’s simply curdled milk, spoiled milk, if you will.

Think about it. Ricotta means literally re-cooked. Ri-cotta (cotta being the past participle of the verb cuocere, to cook, in Italian). It refers to the whey left over from cheese making. That whey is recooked, brought to a boil again, sometimes with a little fresh milk added to enrich it. The remaining proteins in the whey (and there are a lot) clump together and rise to the top of the simmering liquid in the process Italian cheese makers refer to as the “flowering” of the ricotta. Here’s how it works, in a rhythm of life that goes back millennia, maybe even longer, to when the first Neolithic housewife milked the first goat or sheep and started a process that has come down almost unchanged to our day.

This is Massimiliano Mungilli who makes fine, raw-milk pecorino cheeses, just as his father and perhaps his grandfather did before him, high on a hillside above Vicchio in the Mugello valley of northern Tuscany.

Massimiliano Mungilli, master cheese-maker

Massimiliano Mungilli, master cheese-maker

Massimiliano Mungilli begins with the milk of some 800 or so ewes from his flock of 1,000, all grazed on the green fields that surround his farm. These sheep, a typical Tuscan breed called razza sarda or Sardinian, are milked once a day (cows must be milked twice) and he makes cheese two or three times a day, depending on the quantity of milk–which itself depends on the season. Here he’s lifting raviggiolo, a junket-like “cheese” that forms on the top of the barely coagulated milk. It makes a deliciously fresh, soft-textured dairy product, the consistency of sour cream but without the acidity–or the richness. Tuscans like this for breakfast with honey but I’ve also had it as a garnish for a delightful, deep summer red tomato soup. And I can imagine it adding something special to loads of other dishes as well.

He spoons the raviggiolo into draining baskets–it will go straight to market and be consumed within the next 24 to 48 hours.

Next up in the list of tasks, Massimiliano cuts the curd, using a spiral cutter that chops the curd into small grains, not quite rice-sized but certainly like small cannellini beans. Once he’s satisfied, he dips both arms deep into the vat of steaming cheese curds and starts to pull the curds together, shaping them into clusters, away from the whey. Then begins the effort of pulling up the curds and depositing them in draining baskets–once made of reeds, now of plastic–where the cheeses will drain and be turned periodically until they go into a brine and eventually onto shelves to age for anywhere up to 18 months—to become pecorino fresco, pecorino semi-stagionato, or pecorino stagionato, depending on the length of time they spend maturing in the dim cheese cave.

Once the cheeses have been formed, the whey in the draining bucket goes back into the big cauldron and heated again. When it reaches 65ºC., he adds in about 10% of the volume in whole milk and keeps heating, slowly, slowly. At 90ºC. the ricotta will start to flower but just before that happens he adds a little cold salty water. Why? Because that’s the way it’s done, of course.

You can see the first flowering of the ricotta around that stick Massimiliano uses to stir the whey as it heats. It’s a beautiful sight, made even more beautiful by the anticipation of this delectable substance that will very shortly be spooned into our waiting bowls.

And finally, time to spoon out the fresh, warm ricotta.

It is a remarkable performance, all the more so because it’s so easy–or at least it looks easy. If you’ve been doing this day after day for most of your life, if you’re repeating the careful gestures you learned from your father and grandfather, the self-same gestures you’re passing on to your own offspring, if you take enormous pride in the idea of the continuum that links all this together, links generations and links a family to this ancient land, then, yes, it is easy. And it’s a point of pride, as you can see when the day’s tasks are done.

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  • Reply Simona October 31, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Dear Nancy, thank you so much for this post. It’s disheartening for me to see the name of this amazing product of an old tradition hijacked for marketing purposes. Even reputable people in the food world buy into the story of the vinegar-curdled milk they purchase labeled ricotta. When people visit Italy and they taste the real thing, they are left speechless, as well they should. I started making cheese at home in California 4 years ago in part because I wanted to get the whey to make my own ricotta, which I’ve been doing ever since. Unfortunately, ewe’s milk is impossible to find, so I use cow’s milk with the occasional addition of goat’s milk. So, the irony is that I learned about making ricotta after I left Italy: growing up, I took it for granted. My family knew people who, like Massimiliano, had a sheep herd and made pecorino and ricotta. We got both fresh from them. I must admit, though, that I don’t like warm ricotta. My dad told me that when he was a kid sometimes they had it over bread in bowls. I prefer it drained and cooled.

  • Reply Nancy Harmon Jenkins October 31, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    Simona, that’s a lovely note. Thank you so much! I wish more people were as conscientious as you are about ricotta. I do like it warm–and here in Tuscany, where I am right now, it is a terrific treat, poured over torn chunks of bread and garnished with a good dollop of new-harvest olive oil, which is coming in right now.

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