Goat Cheese-making in the Mugello
The Moto Gran Premio draws motorcycle buffs – and not only – from all over the world each year to the glorious Mugello valley in northern Tuscany. One of them is my husband Pino who heads here each year on his moto Guzzi. For the second time, I joined him – and quite literally, only “went along for the ride”: the three-hour ride from Assisi into Tuscany and on to the rolling wooded hills of the Mugello. It’s not just the glorious, serene Mugello valley: Casa Passerini (where we stayed for two nights) and the hospitable owners, the Manetti family, draw me back, too. While Pino was at the track on Sunday, cheering on Valentino Rossi (uselessly, this time), I was in the kitchen of Casa Passerini hearing Gianna’s stories as she coaxed 8 litres of goat’s milk into a wondrous caprino cheese.
Son Marco had milked early that morning and it was Gianna’s turn to make the cheese. The day prior, husband Marcello was cheese maker and while I enjoyed espresso in the kitchen with one of Gianna’s tasty cakes, he stood near the sink, forearms in the whey, tenderly holding the cheese in his hands, coaxing it into a rounded form. After filtering the goat’s milk in a rough cotton cloth, he had heated the milk to 37 ° C and let it sit for about an hour, before adding the rennet. He had washed his hands with soap, rinsing them three times (“to get out any hint of chlorine”, he said..but then again, three is that continually recurring sacred number..) before gathering the white mass together in the saucepan of warm whey.
The forming of the cheese takes about an hour. As he squeezed the cheese to release water, we talked about their goats and how he and Gianna had learned to make cheese from the Sardinian shepherds in Maremma three years ago (“We gave them a good chunk of wild boar I had shot in exchange.”) I couldn’t help thinking that probably any American standing every morning for an hour, forming cheese, would be watching the news on TV or have a Bluetooth or Ipod in the ear so as not to “waste time”.
Of their fifteen Chamois goats, five are milked now (some have kids and the milk goes to them), producing about 10 litres of milk. Two litres are set aside for the family’s morning cappuccinos and perhaps for Gianna’s bechamel sauce for her prized lasagne or one of her delectable desserts: creme caramel or panna cotta. The other eight liters are transformed into caprino by either Marcello or Gianna – or twenty-eight year old daughter Giulia (“her hands are the warmest so she makes the best cheese”, Gianna tells me proudly) One of them is at the kitchen sink each morning, holding the cheese lovingly for an hour, kneading it, molding, waiting for the loose mass to form into a round. When I had remarked to Marcello that it took quite some time, he smiled at me and with a twinkle in his eye, asked “when you were a girl, how long did your boyfriend hold you in his arms?!”
Gianna’s turn on Sunday morning: her hour with hands in the whey was almost up when I joined her in the kitchen. The espresso pot with coffee in it, a fresh coffee cake and her homemade cherry jam awaited me on the table. A pasta sauce with goat’s meat and rabbit in white wine were simmering on the stove and rosemary-rubbed lamb roasted in the oven, surrounded by potatoes cooking in the savory juices. It would be yet another “light lunch” at Casa Passerini! I stirred the pasta sauce for Gianna as she talked to me about the cheese-making, explaining that the heat of the day alters the milk, if imperceptibly. “Animals are stressed by heat as we are – and it takes experience to know how much caglio is needed that day for the cheese”. They have a thermometer to know when the milk reaches the necessary 37 ° but Gianna never uses it, saying that her finger is the best thermometer. Marcello’s hands are warmer, Giulia’s even warmer, she says, so they perceive different amounts of heat.
As she squeezed the cheese round to form it, Gianna said, “Marcello does not have the patience I have,” she said, “to stand here, to hold firmly the cheese. He wants it all to happen sooner.” Then she gently lifted the beautifully-rounded form from the whey into the plastic basket where it would drain, as tenderly as a new mother lifting a baby from her bath. I was moved.
The ricotta-making was the last step: Gianna heated the saucepan of whey until the curds came floating to the top. She scooped the curds out with a perforated ladle. Goat’s milk is far less fatty than sheep’s milk or cow’s milk (“anyone with high cholestoral should drink it”, says Gianna) and the ricotta yield is therefore far less: just a couple cups from the eight litres of milk.
Gianna put the ricotta in the fridge and tenderly held the cheese for a moment in her hands, sighing, “…that Man’s hands can make such a wonder. Straordinario”
Here is how to make a creamy white sauce – bechamel – like Gianna’s:
Bring to a boil about 2 quarts of milk (she would use goat’s milk, of course – you can use cow’s milk, if desired)
Put about 1/2 c. butter in a saucepan.
Melt it slowly but do not allow it to burn.
Stir in a couple handfuls of flour
(“Judging quantities takes practice!”, Gianna says)
Stir with wooden spoon to amalgamate or even better, use a whisk to stir.
Add hot milk gradually, stirring continuously, always in the same direction!
Add salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste as the mixture thickens.
Use in any recipe calling for white sauce.
(To learn to make lasagne like Gianna, stay with her at Casa Passerini! – and yes, she will teach you to make cheese as well if you ask her.)