I had read about the almost ritualistic making of the fresh ricotta cheese and wondered if there was a place I could go to witness the transformation of goats milk to soft sweet curds I had seen at the market – – who knew it was practically within walking distance.
We got up early and left by 7:30. Wrapped in a big white cotton towel and knotted at the top were our bowls, spoons and some dry bread not consumed the day before. It’s so beautiful here in the morning – country quiet except for the birds, clear and warm. The farm, whose goats I had watched grazing and being shepherded near the house in Aci Castello was tucked away around a few curves and bends in the hilly road. My friend Paolo, ever the fabulous guide, knows the way well, in fact, since childhood.
We arrived at a farm – una fattoria. There were a few roosters running amuck, but mostly there were goats. The big old stone building was up a few steps and had several doorways. We entered the central one. It was bright inside with white tiled walls, marble counter-tops and stainless steel. My eyes had to adjust. The terra-cotta floor was getting hosed, as it did quite often while we were there – farm boots are muddy things. Then I had my first glimpse of ‘Nzino standing in the far left corner. He was a burly older man dressed in blue loosely fitting coveralls. His silvery hair was combed back and he had a pleasant, almost serene face. He was stirring a waist-high black cauldron shaped like a pear that was perched over a small gas fire. He stirred milk, goats milk – lots of it, alternately with a very long wooden stick and a large silver ladle. To his left was a stainless steel table on which rested a big wheel of cheese, taking shape and draining in a plastic container full of holes. The table was slanted downwards for draining purposes and at the bottom, twelve more containers awaited filling. Every now and again, he’d go over and press down with his strong hands to extract more water before returning to the cauldron. After awhile he brought a big ladle full of salt and slowly mixed it into the milk vessel. I was surprised it wasn’t more than just one ladle for all that milk. He slowly stirred and attended and it began to froth. At one point he carefully skimmed and tossed the froth into a separate bucket. He stirred again. Patience. Every day. Only one other man was there – an older man with a worn face, minus a front tooth and an Inter Milan cap, a regular visitor, it seemed.
In the meantime, some of the younger boys came around with additional buckets of milk, liters and liters more, full of grass and debris. Just as I began wondering about all the debris, the youngest boy came with a black cloth and a strainer. He perched the strainer on the inside rim of the huge industrial-looking vat occupying the back corner on the left. They poured all of the milk through the strainer and into this refrigeration vessel where it will stay until tomorrow’s ritual. And all of this was done under the watchful eye of the old wooden Crucifix, affixed to the white tiles, in a central location.
One by one more of these fabulous faces arrived. All men. And they carried with them their bowls and spoons. It was Sunday. They were all talking and I understood none of it. It was the Sicilian language of the farmers, the peasants, and the locals, traditionally a spoken not written language. They gesticulated wildly so that my camera only caught blurs. They laughed, they argued – they enjoyed this moment of community. They stood on the porch in the glare of the warm sun. Maybe there were 15. Someone brought coffee – in a take-out carrier, like from Starbucks, except the cups are only 2 inches tall.
I walked away and over to the corral where the goats were penned in. Here I stood, next to all these bleating goats inside a rickety pen with hills all around, an incredible view of Mt Etna and the sound of laughing men behind me; one of those magical moments when all of the senses coincide.
I returned to the porch and the youngest boy motioned me into another one of the doorways. He very proudly showed me his sheep, bigger ones, and cleaner ones because they live inside. Then he walked me to another door and showed me 3 little ones just 2 days old. They were as sweet as anything so little and innocent and soft as cashmere. They were struggling to stand up for the very first time. They stretched and shook and toppled over. We watched and spoke simple Italian, smiling at each other. We shared this wonderful show and had our own moment of community.
Paolo came to get me. The cheese was almost ready. I really stuck out like a sore thumb. It was crowded now with many bowls to fill. When the moment arrived, each bowl was filled with steaming fresh ricotta on top of the bread. They stood and ate. It became quiet. We waited until everyone had their fill and then our bowls were ladled. Stai attenta, e’ caldo! Be careful, it’s hot. I was not prepared for this moment. It was simply heaven on a plate. Milky white, warm curds of soft cheese with chunks of wonderful brown bread poking through like the mountains I could see around me. Simply incredible. It was an enormous bowl and I couldn’t imagine finishing it, but I savored every single bite and I did.
As we left, I tried to hand the boy some money but he gesticulated like I was crazy with his head extended away from his shoulders, the thumb pressed against the other four fingers and the hand moving up and down. I knew ‘Nzino would take it. I asked Paolo what to do and he gasped with a scolding look. (Gia fatto – already done). We picked up our bowls, cheek kisses all around, and went home. It was so extremely satisfying in every way.
Karen La Rosa