Podolica Cattle Ricotta Salata

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Ricotta salata, also known locally as ricotta dura, is a short-ripening, truncated cone-shaped dairy product, the shape imprinted by the small moulds in which the ricotta is collected. The colour of the paste varies from ivory white to creamy yellow; the size varies, about 5-6 cm in height, 8-10 cm in diameter. The weight of the wheels ranges from 200 to 300 g.
After drying, it is compact with a hard texture to the touch, but soft when cut and grated. When stored in air, the surface is opaque and grainy, but is shiny when vacuum-packed, due to the outcrop of fat. During storage, white spots may appear due to salt loss, while if stored in humid environments, grey-green mould may form on the surface, which must be cleaned off before consumption. In the mouth, it is creamy, with a salty and fatty taste, but at the same time delicate and fresh, with an aftertaste of butter and yoghurt and an important and variable aromatic complexity ranging from honey to dried fruit.
The largest production of ricotta salata occurs in spring-summer, but being a semi-matured product, it can be eaten all year round grated, particularly on pasta. Traditional dishes that include it include strascinati with ricotta salata and tomato sauce.
Ricotta salata is produced throughout the Lucania region and in general in central-southern Italy, especially in mountainous and hilly areas, which are particularly suited to sheep-farming and transhumant breeding. Animals reared in the wild or semi-wild feed on the grasses that nature offers in the different seasons, some of which differ from place to place, giving the animals’ milk a particular richness, complexity and variety of flavours and aromas. The time of year when the greatest production of milk and its derivatives is obtained is the spring-summer period, due to the large quantity of grasses on the pastures. This is therefore the best period for the production of salted ricotta, which can then be stored and consumed throughout the year.
Ricotta salata is made from cow’s milk whey by heating the whey to 83-90 °C, at which temperature the whey proteins flocculate and the ricotta rises. Using a skimmer, the ricotta is transferred into special wicker or plastic truncated cone-shaped baskets, which determine its shape.
In the past, the ricotta obtained in this way was destined for immediate consumption while, by adding soured whey to the whey remaining in the vat (caccavo), after the first podolica ricotta had been obtained, a second, coarser and less noble ricotta was obtained. After draining the whey from the moulds for at least 24 hours, it is dry salted with fine salt and dried for at least a month in cool, ventilated premises. During this period, each wheel is turned daily.
Today, ricotta salata is difficult to find in Basilicata, especially in its original version, and is essentially sheep’s milk ricotta or mixed milk ricotta (sheep and goat, or cow and sheep); however, reading the main texts dealing with the Lucanian dairy heritage of the last two centuries, it emerges that, although there is a trace of sheep’s milk ricotta (see the ‘Statistica del Regno di Napoli’ of 1811, which in the list of dairy products in the Avigliano district states: ‘la ricotta salata di vacca, e di pecora cent. 66’), cow’s milk ricotta salata was an integral part of the transformation process leading to the production of caciocavallo podolico. It was in fact a by-product following the spinning of the paste, in the view of a peasant economy that did not want anything to be lost. In fact, rather than obtaining it from the first unsold ricotta (or ricotta flower), which was not lost because manteca was made from it, salted ricotta was obtained from the second ricotta: a less noble product that also recovered the last caseous residues left in the whey after the production of the first ricotta. In this regard, Giovanni Salerno, in a lecture held during the Lagonegro Zootechnical Exhibition on 20 September 1892, in an attempt to respond with technical data to the accusation levelled against caciocavallo by the ‘Dei maggiori dell’industria agraria’ assembled in a jury at the 1878 Paris Universal Exhibition, in which caciocavallo was defined as ‘the sign of barbarism in the southern provinces’ also because it was obtained using a ‘delapidating manufacturing method, because it throws the milk fat into the boiling waters of the treatment’. Salerno analysed every phase of the transformation process leading to the production of caciocavallo, precisely to verify ‘whether with the current manufacturing method, there is a waste of fat, and whether it is really thrown out with the whey and the hot water, into dog food’ and, with respect to salted ricotta, he states ‘In the first treatment of the milk, (…) if the curd remains a whey or buttermilk very rich in fat, this is then separated into the first ricotta fior, which is then reduced to a manteca (…). The second ricotta, obtained at a high temperature, and with an energetic coagulant, strips the whey of all its caseous parts, and leaves only those soluble salts, which remain in it, with all the other manufacturing methods’. Elsewhere in the same text, he describes the production process of salted ricotta in more detail: ‘After this, the first ricotta is made by heating the whey to almost boiling point and pouring agra (sour whey) into it. This produces hard ricotta, of inferior quality and to be kept salted’.
This description mirrors the one given in the above-mentioned Statistica Murattiana of 1811: ‘Then the whey is again put into the cauldron, and as it heats up, the ricotta is extracted that is to be eaten without salt, and is used to extract the manteca, then the so-called acizza water is poured in to extract the coarser ricotta, which is salted, this water is nothing but oxidised whey when it covers it’.
So, although there is a trace of sheep’s ricotta salata in Basilicata, in the main texts discussing Lucanian cheeses in the 19th and early 20th centuries, ricotta salata is described as a by-product of the production process of caciocavallo podolico. Then, with the industrialisation of dairy processing and the advent and spread in homes of the refrigerator, the habit of using packaged butter from northern Italy began to spread, and consequently there was less and less demand for manteche. As a result, salted ricotta became the method of recovering and storing unsold ricotta and not second ricotta, with the consequent waste of those substances left in the whey and no longer recovered.
With the birth of the first cheese factories also in Basilicata, and with the possibility of transporting fresh dairy products by refrigerated means and storing them longer in refrigerators, salted cow’s ricotta almost disappeared. The production of sheep’s or mixed-milk ricotta has been favoured, since cow’s ricotta is very fine-grained, as opposed to sheep’s ricotta, which is coarser, so drying and subsequent salting also require more time and care. It is also softer when grated.
The production of salted ricotta was taken care of by the ‘vaccari’ who followed the herd in the transhumance; when, on the other hand, salted ricotta was obtained from the few animals that each family owned essentially for family sustenance, it was often the women who took care of the production and care of this product.Very few dairies, especially small ones, continue to produce salted ricotta in the spring season, when there is a greater abundance of it; the production was essentially preserved by farmers who produced it almost exclusively for domestic use and for some who used to use it in traditional recipes. In recent years there has been a revival of interest in this dairy product, which is not always made according to the original recipe, even among chefs interested in rediscovering traditional ingredients.

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Nominated by:Mariantonietta Vaccaro