Cheese

Sicily produces a great variety of excellent quality cheeses widely renowned in the rest of Italy and also abroad. Since ancient times, Virgil and other classical writers mention the flourishing export market for Sicilian cheeses in Greece. Certain Sicilian cheeses made in those days are still made today; others were introduced by the Arabs, Normans and Longobards during the Middle Ages.

What makes cheeses different, apart from the source of the milk (and even the variety of cow or goat), is the culture and aging process used in the cheese's manufacture. That's why ricotta differs from feta, though both are made from the milk of sheep or goats, and it's why English cheddar differs from Sicilian provola, both made from cow's milk. Even if the same method, culture and bovine species were used, Sicilian provola would still taste different from a hypothetical English variety because the livestock of both islands graze in different pastures, producing milk that tastes different.

Here is a list of some of Sicily's best cheeses.

Pecorino, as its name implies, is made from sheep's milk ("pecora" meaning sheep). It is true that Sicily's sheep population is ever diminishing, but in Italian regions, only Sardinia presently raises more sheep than Sicily. It can be flavored with peppercorns or other spices. Made throughout Sicily, where it may be considered the most widely produced aged cheese, it is a favourite for grating over pasta. Its taste, though sharp, is often less pungent and dry than that of Caciocavallo, despite a distinctive flavour and texture (it crumbles and flakes easily).

Caciocavallo is made from cow's milk, though its cryptic name literally means "horse cheese" --the Sicilian word "cacio" sharing the same root as casein while "cavallo" means horse. The cheese owes its name to the manner in which two bulbs are attached by a string and suspended from a beam "a cavallo" as though astride a horse to age. It takes at least eight months to age Caciocavallo properly, achieving a sharper flavour in about two years. Caciocavallo is a good complement to stronger wines, and widely used for grating over pasta. Indeed, it is a favourite of Sicilian chefs for use with pasta. It's usually shaped as a large wheel.

Canestrato is made from whole cow's milk, sometimes diluted with that of goats or sheep. Its name derives from its aging in baskets (canestri). It is quite similar to Pecorino, made with the same process, and there is a theory that Canestrato was developed to obtain a similar product while using cow's milk. Its form is usually cylindrical, weighing as much as thirty pounds (about fifteen kilograms). It is usually somewhat sweet until aged more than fourteen months. Sicilians prefer to consume Canestrato as a table cheese with wine, fruit or both.

Provola, which comes in regional Sicilian varieties (Nebrodi, Ragusa, Madonie), is made from whole cow's milk. There's also a tasty smoked form, and it's the classical complement to hams. It assumes a sharp flavour when aged. Made using a very old method, Provola is usually formed into a bulb, then suspended from a ribbon or string for aging. This gives it a pear shape, with each bulb weighing a kilogram or less.

Tuma and Primo Sale are known, in some forms, as "Vastedda" in some parts of Sicily, such as the Belice Valley. Made from sheep or cow's milk, it is usually called Tuma when tasted right out of the mould, Primo Sale when salted lightly, and Vastedda when aged slightly longer. Like Pecorino, Tuma is sometimes flavored with peppercorns or other spices. Unlike Pecorino, it does not age well and is best served with ham, wines and fruits as a table cheese. It has a sweet taste not unlike that of Provola, with an equally rubbery texture.

Ricotta Salata is an aged, salted Ricotta (cottage cheese whose Italian name literally means "re-cooked") made from sheep's milk, produced in the Sicilian heartland. Usually only the rind is actually salted heavily, leaving the core mild and quite sweet for an "aged" cheese.

Ragusano DOP is an uncooked cheese made from whole cow's milk. It is shaped as a parallelepiped block with rounded edges. The rind is smooth, thin and close. Its colour is golden or yellow tending towards brown if the cheese is aged enough to become fit for grating. The rind encases a close-textured paste, usually white and tending to a pale or deeper yellow. The taste is particularly pleasant, sweet and delicate. There is little sharpness or bite to the table variety of the cheese whose period of maturation is short. But if the cheese is aged until it is fit for grating, it acquires a sharper and more savoury taste.

Maiorchino is produced in small quantities with 70% raw sheep milk and 30% goat milk from cattle living in the wild pastures of the Peloritani mountains. The technique to make maiorchino is complex and includes the Bucatura with the Minacino, the piercing with a special needle to get rid of the excess whey from the centre of the cheese.

Vastedda del Belice is the only pasta filata (kneaded curd) sheep cheese made in Italy. The name Vastedda comes probably from the word "vasta", meaning "gone off" and referred to the sheep milk that during summer went off and was recycled by turning it into cheese. Today the Vastedda is made with fresh sheep milk in the Belice area.