While we were in Italy last year (see “Italy 2016” photo diaries), we worked as farmers at an Agriturismo outside Pavullo nel Frignano, located about an hour and a half train ride from Modena. An agriturismo is an Italian working farm/bed & breakfast that utilizes local products. We’ve stayed at a few in the past and I can say the experience is always memorable and unique. The accommodations are usually revamped farmhouses (which have their quirks!), nestled in an off the beaten path countryside, highlighting hyper localized cuisine. Typically the hosts/working farmers will send you on great local adventures, such as Saturday markets, restaurants you’d never find on your own, or in my case, a tour of the 2016 winner for 24-month Parmigiano Reggiano.
Now that I’ve sung the praises of an agriturismo experience, let’s get back to the farming thing. First, I’m going use the word “farmer” loosely, as I was primarily cleaning rooms, washing sheets, hacking down blackberry bushes, weeding, walking dogs and snipping slugs. Second, our farm/agriturismo was located in the most breathtaking valley populated with elderflowers. While walking the dogs twice a day, the wind carried pockets of the blooming flower, a sweet yet herbaceous smell forever engraved in my psyche.
One morning I was invited to join the agriturismo owner and a small group of guests at the local caseificio (dairy) for a Parmigiano Reggiano tour. We ended the morning at a picnic table outside for colazione (breakfast). Wrapped in fleece blankets to protect our shoulders from the chilly wind, we enjoyed a lemon torte, espresso, fresh cheese from the caseificio and local chestnut honey on hearty country bread. (Yes, we DID eat well in Italy, incase you were wondering[Symbol])
Although the table was filled with local culinary treasures, the star was fresh ricotta, still warm from its copper vat. While on tour, I watched as the cheese maker added some type of acid to the milk after the Parmigiano was extracted. Within a few minutes he scooped a small plastic basket into the congealing milk and handed the slightly firm product to our guide. Back at the picnic table we spooned small amounts of warm ricotta into dishes, drizzled it with honey and fell silent as the flavors washed over our palates.
“This. Is. Heaven.” I thought.
As I’m writing, my stomach grumbles thinking about the incredible treats from that small caseificio, hidden within the rolling hills of Modena. Last month I decided to make my own ricotta, in hopes of recreating its splendor stateside. I don’t know if anything could taste as divine as it did that morning in Pavullo, but it’s dang good.
I’ve made this recipe from Smitten Kitchen three times now and leave you with this advice: let the cheese drain for about 5 minutes. Although the product will appear very soupy when you scoop it into a jar, the next morning the cheese will solidify and you’ll have the most luscious ricotta ever. I also experimented using raw milk vs. plain-ole pasteurized (organic) milk; the raw version had a slightly different flavor, more ‘cooked milk-y’ I’d say, but it didn’t justify the price difference or availability of using pasteurized. I also added a skouch more lemon juice to one version, which I liked, but my man preferred a less tangy cheese (presented below).
Finally, I recommend doubling this recipe. If you’re planning to share it with your significant other (or friends), a cup will disappear real quick! 2 cups, or a double batch, lasted us one week and if we had a little left over on Saturday, Eddie added hearty scoops of ricotta to pancake batter with lemon zest for an extra special treat.
Recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Makes about 1 generous cup of ricotta
3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Pour the milk, cream and salt into a 3-quart nonreactive saucepan. Attach a thermometer (I used a meat thermometer), and heat the milk to 190°F, stirring it occasionally to keep it from scorching on the bottom.
- Remove from heat and add the lemon juice, then stir it once or twice, gently and slowly. Let the pot sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.
- Line a colander with a layer of cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl (to catch the whey). Pour the curds and whey into the colander and let the curds strain for *about 5 minutes.
*Smitten Kitchen’s recipe calls for the cheese to drain for 1-2 hours, but we preferred a moist, stracciatella style curd.
4. Save and freeze the whey! You can add it to quick breads or use as soup stock. Very delicious.
5. Eat the ricotta right away or transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use. It will keep in the refrigerator for about a week.