The Science of Saving Antiquity
Oranges. The road from Catania airport to Ragusa was lined with orange groves bearing fruit of every size, shape, and hue. In some places the orchard floor appeared almost carpeted with its bumper crop of fallen fruit. With flowers in bloom everywhere, Sicily seemed to be in all its glory in January despite the cooler than normal European winter.
Moving south from the valleys surrounding Mount Etna, the landscape became drier and more desertlike, leaving behind the orange groves and vineyards in exchange for carob trees and giant prickly pear cactus laden with magenta-colored “figs.” Sheep and cattle grazed freely on sparse but green pastures.
I was a happy witness to this pastoral real estate en route to attend Cheese Art in Ragusa, Italy, an event that returned to Sicily early this year after a hiatus of six years. This three-day happening celebrates the traditional cheeses of the world, elevating their craft to the level of a cultural art. Previously held biennially since 2000, the global economic downturn of the preceding decade caused this gathering to be suspended temporarily. This year it came back, with an additional focus on technical research and the preservation of traditional cheesemaking. The conference hosted researchers from 19 countries discussing clinical findings and the challenges of preserving indigenous cheeses of the world.
Organizer and visionary Professor Giuseppe Licitra of Catania University created the event to initiate the first conference of the World Wide Traditional Cheeses Association (WwTCa) and to celebrate the opening and dedication of the Cacioteca Regionale Siciliana. The Cacioteca is the first facility of its kind in Europe that combines a collective aging facility for traditionally made cheeses along with an educational center open for public events.
The aim of the WwTCa is to identify, categorize, and preserve the production methods of cheeses and other dairy products that have existed in their native populations for centuries. The documentation of the process and its safety and nutritional value, along with the cultural evolution of each product, is recorded and scientifically analyzed. Maintaining native pasture plants, using traditional cheesemaking tools, and sustaining all the biodiverse factors that influence the character of the cheese are the main points of concern.
On the first day of Cheese Art, the opening of the Cacioteca Regionale Siciliana celebrated the dedication of this central aging facility for traditional cheeses long envisioned by Licitra. This Guggenheim-like, semisubterranean structure guides visitors with a long, winding ramp lined with photos of rustic Sicilian cheeses. The center of the building houses a large theater for public events, with 10 glass-fronted climate-controlled cheese-aging rooms along one wall. A sophisticated media center, an elegant tasting bar, and a sensory evaluation lab complete the center.
Day two offered a full day of PowerPoint presentations being delivered by scientists and academics. Against a panoramic backdrop of the 10 aging caves, researchers from around the world discussed their scientific findings on traditional raw-milk cheeses. Some topics included the use of traditional wooden tools in cheesemaking, the production of Turkish tulum cheese aged in animal skins, the biodiversity of raw-milk flora, and the threat to traditional cheesemaking by new food safety standards. A most moving presentation was given by Tsetsgee Ser-Od of Mongolia, who described the loss of 30 percent of Mongolian livestock in the past year due to declines in pastures and global climate change.
Saturday gave the public an opportunity to purchase small plates of salumi and raw-milk cheeses from around the world. The tasting bar is an elegant room with a curved glass exterior wall and naturally shaped wooden tables in full view of a well-stocked display case filled with aged-to-perfection cheeses. Accompanied by Sicilian wines and artisanal beer, attendees were treated to a lecture by Teo Musso, the founder and owner of Birrificio Le Baladin, Italy’s premier craft beer.
On a free afternoon an excursion into the town of Ragusa showcased a vibrant and modern city along with the historic and original town of Ragusa Ibla. A verbose taxi driver was more than happy to double as our tour guide, pointing out historic sites, trendy and traditional restaurants, and the best places to purchase Ragusa’s colorful, classic pottery. A stop at Pasticceria Giovanni DiPasquale’s sweet shop helped me fulfill my objective to eat cannolis every day while in Sicily. Later in the afternoon we visited a cheese shop (also named DiPasquale’s) well stocked with the traditional DOP cheeses of Italy, its ceiling almost drooping with rows of provolones hanging from the rafters. There were some wonderful new Italian breakout cheeses to be sampled—a fruity, firm ewe’s milk creation bathed in pear nectar, a provolone aged with a whole lemon inside, a semisoft goat cheese cloaked in almond wood ash, and a soft fresh cow’s milk cheese dusted with chestnut flour. A sampling of the revived historic Tuma Persa, a traditional Sicilian raw cow’s milk cheese with a black pepper–encrusted rind, revealed a distinctly less salty tomme than its Sicilian counterparts. The next evening at the Cacioteca, this same cheesemonger served up a specially aged nine-year old DOP Ragusano cheese. Flinty and salty with a roasted caramel finish, the taste of this remarkable cheese lingered long on the palate.
Although cheesemakers in the United States don’t have centuries-old tradition surrounding their cheese production, food safety and raw-milk issues that pertain to their work are coming under increased scrutiny around the world. With Dr. Cathy Donnelly of the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese serving as vice president of the WwTCa, American cheesemakers will have a direct link to the work of this new organization and its aim to interact with global authorities and share scientific research to preserve and protect the craft. Voting membership in WwTCa is restricted to scientists and academics actively involved in dairy research, but supporting members in the media and cheesemaking are welcome to join. For more information go to wwtca.org.
Written by Alice Birchenwald