Italian flavors: Ragusano cheese
- WTI Magazine #154 Aug 25, 2022
Ragusano DOP is a spun curd cheese made with raw cow’s milk using traditional equipment. It is produced throughout the province of Ragusa and in some towns in the province of Syracuse during the fodder season, i.e. November to May.
Historically referred to as “caciocavallo ragusano” (caciocavallo from Ragusa), it is one of the island’s oldest dairy products and its name derives from the custom of drying the wheels of cheese “a cavaddu”, that is ‘on horseback’ or straddling, an axis.
It is a cheese with a sweet and distinct flavour that has been the basis of a flourishing trade beyond the borders of the Kingdom of Sicily since the fourteenth century. As early as 1515, Carmelo Trasselli wrote in “Ferdinando il Cattolico e Carlo V” (Ferdinand the Catholic and Charles V) describing a “duty exemption” for caciocavallo ragusano, meaning it was already the object of considerable business.
In “Note sui Ragusei in Sicilia” (Notes of the People of Ragusa in Sicily), Trasselli also mentioned documents by “Notary Gaetano, F. 106” that make further reference to the trade of caciocavallo by ship.
In a work by Abbot Paolo Balsamo dating back to 1808, emphasis was placed on the “goodness of the Modica cattle” and the “cheese and ricotta products, which are fifty per cent better than that of the towns, and twenty five per cent more than the best in Sicily.”
In 1856 Filippo Garofano also cited the fame and exquisiteness of the cheeses and ricottas of Ragusa. In 1995 the excellence of this dairy product earned it a Designation of Origin, and the following year it obtained EU DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) recognition, whereby it lost the historic name of “caciocavallo”.
Ragusano DOP cheese has a pleasant aroma that characteristic of its particular production procedures, and a very pleasant flavour. It has a sweet vanilla taste and is only mildly spicy in the first months of maturation (in the table cheeses), then it gets more spicy with a hint of almond when it is matured for longer (in cheeses for grating).
Its typical shape is that of a parallelepiped with a square section and cropped corners. Slight inlets can be found on the surface due to the movement of the supporting ropes used during the curing process. Each wheel weighs around 16 kg and has a smooth, fine, compact crust that is a golden yellow or brownish straw colour, depending on the length of the seasoning for the cheeses for grating.
The maximum thickness is 4 mm and it can be covered in olive oil. It has a compact structure and may have cracks that occur when the curing period is extended, which can sometimes be combined with a few holes. When cut, it has a white colour tinged with straw yellow that can be more or less intense.
The milk destined to be transformed into cheese must come from farms located within the municipalities of: Acate, Chiaramonte Gulfi, Comiso, Giarratana, Ispica, Modica, Monterosso Almo, Pozzallo, Ragusa, S. Croce Camerina, Scicli and Vittoria in the province of Ragusa, and the municipalities of Noto, Palazzolo Acreide and Rosolini in the province of Syracuse.
The cows that produce the milk must be fed predominantly with wild plants and the grasses of the Hyblean Plateau, which may be also be turned into hay. The raw milk from one or more milkings is filtered and poured into a wooden vat, where the lamb or kid rennet paste is added before it is heated.
Once it has coagulated, a ‘rotula’ (literally a knee cap) is used to break up the curd to produce granules with the average size of a grain of rice. After this, the caseous mass is left to deposit sediment on the bottom of the vat.
After this, the “tuma” cheese is separated from the whey with the help of an “iaruozzu” ladle and placed in “vascedde” (wooden or plastic containers) where it is left to drain on a “mastredda” wooden table for around 30 minutes. Next, the cheese is cut into slices and treated with the liquid resulting from the ricotta processing.
Then it is covered with a cloth in order to prevent sudden drops in the temperature and left to rest for around 85 minutes.
When the cooking phase is completed, the caseous mass is left to bleed into the vascedde and then the various slices of curd are layered one on top of the other in the mastredda, where they are left to rest for around 20 hours.
Once the time required for the cooling and further bleeding has passed, the cheese is cut into slices of around 1 cm, placed in a copper or wood contained called a “staccio” and covered with hot water.
At this point, the cheese is prepared very carefully, with the help of a flattened wooden stick known as a “manuvedda”, until a spherical shape is produced with an external surface free from stretch marks.
The resulting wheel of cheese, which is still warm, is placed back in the mastredda and pressed with wooden planks called the “muolitu and cugni”, then constantly turned until it takes on the characteristic parallelepiped shape with a square section.
The cheese remains in the mastredda for 12-18 hours before being immersed in special cement tanks for the brining. The salting process is protracted for a variable amount of time depending on the size of the wheels. The curing, which can last from a minimum of 3 months up to over 12 months, tasks place in ventilated rooms with an ambient temperature of 14-16°C.
The wheels are tied in pairs with fine cord and placed astride the special supports in order to ensure perfect aeration for the whole surface of the wheel. The curing rooms are called “maiazzè”, and they are fresh, humid and ventilated and sometimes underground spaces where the pairs of wheels are hung “a cavallo” (on horseback, i.e. straddling) a wooden beam tied with “liama” rope or “cannu” cord made with “zammarra” or cotton.
Cheeses destined for prolonged curing are covered with olive oil. The product can only be smoked using natural and traditional procedures, in which case the designation of origin must be followed by the word “smoked”.
The local area
Ragusano DOP is produced in the chalky Hyblean Plateaus characterised by green pastures rich in wild vegetation that occupy the southeast edge of Sicily.
The history of these places starts with the caves of Ispica, which have preserved impenetrable and constant traces of human presence from the Neolithic times to the beginning of the last century, and continues with the Baroque scenery littered with domes and bell towers, with gnomes and fantastical animals carved into the shelves supporting the balconies and the cornices of the palaces of Ragusa Iblea, Scicli and Modica.
The Ragusa countryside is shaped by the chalky rock of the characteristic dry stone walls and dotted with the typical rural architecture of the Hyblean manor farms. It shifts between centuries-old carob trees, olive groves and rugged natural pastures where the cows graze freely, especially those of the Modicana breed.
By Consorzio per la tutela del formaggio Ragusano with MiPAAF