This is an excerpt from one of Bill’s previous blog posts during a visit to Puglia and the impromptu mozzarella class that ensued.
Today’s installment is all about the food. Such is life in Puglia, a bountiful region with hundreds of miles of coastline and an abundance of seafood, olive oil, grapes, regional pastas, cheeses and meats. For travelers such as we, it is both a blessing and a curse. A visit here awakens the culinary imagination and quickens the gastronomic pulse… though it also threatens to expand the corporeal waistline.
We awake to the gentle lapping of the ocean against the cliffs below our window, but today the sun is not so bright. The skies are gray and rain clouds dart in and out. But the temperature is mild, perhaps 50 degrees, a veritable heat wave compared to the freezing, snowy weather we encountered here last February.
We drive to Gioia del Colle to meet Angelo, who will be our guide for the entire day, retracing the route by which we left him the night before. Together, we drive toward Santeramo where we will meet the aunt of Filippo Mancino, our supplier of extra-virgin olive oil. Filippo and Angelo have been kind enough to arrange for us to watch fresh mozzarella being made—Filippo’s aunt, who runs a farm just outside of Santeramo, has been making this signature cheese her entire lifetime. The drive is beautiful, with olive trees stretching into infinity and small stone fences lining the road. As we descend from the Murge, the plateau on which Gioia del Colle is situated, onto the plain that stretches into neighboring Basilicata, the terrain becomes rocky and then lush. The rain has given up and bits of sun occasionally stream through the gray sky.
We are greeted warmly by Filippo’s aunt and her spritely eighty-year-old mother (it must be the mozzarella!). We are led into their kitchen which is connected to the cheese making area, a small sanitary area with some sterile metal cans and other devices for making various cheeses. Our mozzarella today, however, is a decidedly low-tech affair. A simple plastic tub, filled with briny water is sitting on a stool and next to it, on a wooden table is a thick white mass the consistency of cottage cheese but smooth rather than lumpy. This mass will in a few moments become mozzarella, and has been made from a mixture of the previous evening’s milk and this morning’s milk from the farm’s cows.
The milks have been heated to a temperature of 40 degrees celsius and rennet has been added. (When we ask about rennet we are told it is not a very “nice” ingredient. It comes only from the stomach of baby calves who are still drinking their mother’s milk. We are not quite clear how it is extracted from the cow, but we really don’t want to know.) The heated milk has been left to drain and has now settled into the light paste that is before us. The Aunt uses a knife to cut through the paste, mixing it up by cutting it (we are told that the word mozzarella comes from the old Italian mozzare, which means to cut) and then placing it in a large bowl where her mother pours hot water over it. Using a long, flat, wooden paddle the cheese is rolled and pressed, moving it in and out of the water and over the paddle. The texture begins to change from a paste and becomes light and elastic, like a bright white wad of Silly Putty. The aunt shapes the cheese into a long flattened tube, tying a knot and using a knife to cut off the little tied pieces which she puts into a bowl of cold water. Alternately she rolls the mass into a small ball the size of an egg, gathering the edges together and tucking them away from view inside the ball. Asked if we want salted or unsalted cheese the mozzarella is transferred to a bowl of salted water and then we are each served a plate of cheese. A small glass of red wine and a piece of bread accompany the most delicious (and definitely the freshest) cheese we have ever had. The cheese has a mild taste, slightly salty but creamy and smooth. We finish our plates and are rewarded with another knot of cheese—I consume six balls and braids of mozzarella (so as not to be rude!)
We are told that the family raises cows only for the production of milk and also have a small stable of a special breed of donkeys. As we are preparing to leave, two donkeys are brought out for milking. The milk of these donkeys is very close to mother’s milk, we are told, and the family sells it to families whose children cannot drink cow’s milk.
When we say goodbye to our new friends, we are comfortably full of farm-fresh mozzarella and good company. We promise not to return until we have recovered from the food coma, but we make many plans for joint travel, business and, of course, eating.