A Traveler’s Cheese Fantasy
11 November 2010
I bounced out of bed this morning, completely primed for some serious fun in town: a visit to the local cheese farmer. Trying to fight the urge to pre-write my fantasy visit to the enchanted, I followed Cornelia to La Tavolata, the restaurant at Podere Conti, the agriturismo I will call home for the coming week. I trotted along behind her like a happy puppy at her heels. Of course, morning coffee will never be the same after this morning’s doppio espresso. Add that to the list of “I never want to leave because of…”s.
A short time later, we rolled up to the small, free-standing structure that is the cheese shop. So far, fantasy imitating reality. But, unfortunately, the shop was out of operation as the floors were being redone, my fantasy falling flat at my feet on the porch where I’d narrowly missed a dream coming true. I poked my nose inside, expecting a noseful of sawdust, only to discover the piquant airborne remnants of something tantalizingly fresh, and undeniably authentic. The atmosphere was suspending the cheese, even in its absence.
Cornelia explained to the farmer that I was interested in tasting his cheeses, and that I write on a blog for Culture in the United States. This gorgeous bearded and flush-faced man sprung to the back and returned with a basket of his fresh ricotta, offering it as well as an invitation to visit his farm in the coming week. Fantasy trumped by reality indeed.
The velvet texture of warm fresh ricotta is like no other, returning nearly to its original cream on the tongue. I had never tasted a non-commercial ricotta, and a fingerful in the car was merely a foreshadowing of the bar-raising experience I was about to have with it. Not only is this particular cheese farmer amongst the finest in the country, but this region is also home to a particular grade of honey with a DOC certification (similar to the authenticity seal on wines only genuine if noted as such.)
Back at Podere Conti, the children were obviously well familiar with the blessed marriage of fresh ricotta and local chestnut and acacia honeys, for they sang with joy as Cornelia spooned out their portions, anticipating what I would consider a decadent dessert, but is in reality a simple and easily-accessible pairing. The first spoonful, I will admit, slid onto my tongue and confused me initially. I suppose with anything so rich and perfect, and new and exciting, there is a need to let go of all previous sensory comparisons and be in the moment with the experience at hand. By the end of spoonful number one, a powerful and grounded chestnut flavor had wrapped itself around my palate, encapsulating the ricotta and taking it through all notes on the buds: sweet, pungent, slightly bitter and nutty, woody, smoky, creamy, and full. The acacia was likely responsible for the woody quality, of which I am very fond. In fact, I can’t think of a single note I didn’t adore. Fantasy entirely eradicated by reality.