Fifty Shades of Whey – The History and Making of Ricotta

“The three cheeses essential to Italian cooking are: grana, known all over the world as Parmesan; mozzarella, that elastic white buffalo-milk cheese of the south; and ricotta, a soft milk cheese, unsalted, which is at its best in the spring, in Rome and round about…Ricotta is a cheese which must be eaten very fresh. With a little salt and ground black pepper it has a lovely countrified flavour. It is pounded up and mixed with spinach to make the most delicious gnocchi and ravioli, and it is turned into a number of good, sweet dishes, as is its counterpart in Greece and as some fresh cream cheeses are in France.”

(Elizabeth David, “Italian Food”, published by Macdonald in 1954)

Whenever I teach Italian cookery courses in my home or in other cookery schools and put ricotta filled ravioli, crespelle, lasagne, cannoli alla siciliana, crostata, torta, tiramisu or cassata on the Menu, a small part of me dies. I think of the grey, insipid, chalky paste that is sold as ricotta in the supermarkets in Britain and it is no wonder that most people do not even want to know of it. In fact, in the e-mails that ping backwards and forwards in the preparation before the date fixtures, many cookery school owners ask whether I would mind replacing the ricotta cheesecake recipe with a “proper cream cheese” one because they know no one will buy that £100 – £150 course if the “r” word is mentioned. It’s a bit like bad polenta – once eaten, never forgotten, never forgiven.

Even if the Menu does pass muster at the initial stages, blushing embarrassment is sure to ensue during the actual course itself. As I cut the thin film lid of the ricotta tub, inside I see a shallow, lurking pool of dove grey liquid, and as I turn the spoon to scoop the ricotta out into a colander, it plops unceremoniously with a solid thud, all compressed and unpromising. The students raise their sceptical eyes slowly from the work table to me, waiting, unconvinced, to see what on earth I am going to make with this kaolin lump, my confidence and enthusiasm subsiding by the minute.

This shameful dilemma is a world away from the grassy, rich, aromatic, herbaceous taste of fresh, homemade ricotta eaten with a splash of green olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt mixed with spring garden herbs, or a summery tomato passata or even a shaving of autumn’s black truffles. Or indeed be-speckled with earthy cinnamon, crunchy brown cane sugar, runny lavender honey or melted, dark chocolate: proper ricotta is the poor, clever man’s feast. It is also so low in fat (less than 15%) you can be forgiven for using it liberally, with wanton abandon.

A good invention has many fathers, but ultimately the birth of fresh whey cheeses like ricotta can be found in the history of peasant thrift, dairy farmyard recycling and domestic frugality. It takes over 10 kg of milk, whether it be derived from a cow, a goat, a sheep or a buffalo, to produce just 1 kg of cheese, and the residue from that process is whey. To utilise the effluent liquid from the production of one food product for the production of a second, subsidiary product has enabled farmers and smallholders throughout history to make good use of an otherwise polluting waste discharge.

Ricotta has a long and interesting history, albeit not an illustrious one. Something so simple and basic has never merited a prominent place in the annals of gastronomic writing.

In the years AD 170-230 the Greek writer Athenaeus wrote of a soft Sicilian cheese, which is possibly the first record of a product that might have been ricotta.

From AD 965-1072 the Emirate of Sicily was an Islamic state and we know that along with distillation the Arabs introduced a number of fermenting techniques to the island’s population. To this day in fact, when we eat Sicilian cannoli, sweet fried pastry cylinders filled with sheep’s ricotta mixed with candied peel, almonds, pistachios, raisins, sugar and rosewater, we can taste the Arab influence on the gastronomy of this region.

For over 1000 years whey cheeses like ricotta and its European counterparts such as Anari from Cyprus, Lor from Turkey, Manouri from Greece, Brocciu from Corsica and Urda from Romania, have been regarded as the food of the poor, of the land and of hardship. They symbolise a cadre of artisan class that has to make do and mend, waste not and want not. In polite Italian society it is the creamier Mascarpone and Mozarella cheeses that are prized and valued amongst the fresh cheeses, the unspoken snobbery holding ricotta as the symbol of what slimmers, the infirm and the poor eat.

It is recorded that King Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor (1194 – 1250), was hunting in his native kingdom of Sicily when, famished, he came across a dairy farmer’s hut and was offered a bread loaf with ricotta. There was nothing else, presumably, as surely if the farmer had been wealthier a ham, a wild game bird or at least a rabbit would have been offered to the sovereign.

In the Tacuinum Sanitatis, the Latin translation of the Arab physician Ibn Butlan of Baghdad’s 11th Century health handbook, we see the first ever illustration of a family making ricotta. They have a boiling cauldron hanging over a burning log fire, a simple thatched cottage and an outdoor table in a small courtyard.

In “I Mangiatoi di Ricotta” or “The Ricotta Eaters” painting by the Renaissance artist Vincenzo Campi (1536-1591) we see burly, rough looking men eating a mound of ricotta with a ladle, a fly nestling on the cheese, and a toothsome dairymaid looking away laughing as one of the uncouth buffoons has overstuffed his mouth with one spoon too many.

Similarly, in “The Curds and Whey Seller” painting (dated between 1725 and 1735, the British School, Museum of London), we see a dark corner of Cheapside in the East End of London, where frugal, sustaining street food could be bought for a small sum, the aproned seller sitting out in the cold on a wooden barrel, plying her trade to passers-by.

Despite its humble status as the food of the poor, by the 16th and 17th Centuries Italian writers and food lovers were already seeking out the best ricotta. In 1548 a Milanese writer by the name of Ortensio Landro published his “Commentario delle piu notabili e mostruose cose d’Italia e d’altri luoghi”, a commentary on the most notable and outlandish things to be found in Italy and other places. In Val Calci in Tuscany he wrote that he ate the very best ricotta in the world. A century later, in 1643, Giovan Battista Crisci, who published “Lucerna de corteggiani”, a collection of Menus across Italy, pinpointed the best salted ricotta as coming from Capua, goat’s milk ricotta from Pozzuoli and Vallo di Potenza and ricotte di raschi from Calabria. A seventeenth century Tuscan writer, Antonio Frugoli, wrote a very comprehensive treatise on stewardships called “Pratica e Scalcaria” in 1638, and he was one of the very first to write about the uses of ricotta in cooking, in tarts and as a filling, or eaten simply raw with sugar sprinkled on top.

The traditional Easter tart of Naples, “La Pastiera”, baked in a shell of pasta frolla or shortcut pastry with moistened wheat kernels, raisins, candied squash and ricotta, has been a symbol of spring, renewal and gratitude for the bounty of the land for millenia. Pellegrino Artusi, the 19th Century author of “The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating well”, wrote of the peasant dishes of his province, Emilia Romagna, where budino di ricotta, made with sugar, eggs, almonds and lemons, was a favourite wedding dish alongside a ricotta tart.  In Giuliano Bugialli’s comprehensive work “Foods of Sicily, Sardinia and the Smaller Islands” (published by Rizzoli in 1996) we also see paper thin carta da musica, or music sheet bread, topped with ricotta that has been embellished with honey, sugar, cream, grated lemon zest and wild strawberries.

Ricotta has never been the star of the show, the hero of the dish: in the history of food writing it has always been the lean filler and carrier that bolstered the accompanying protagonist ingredients, both sweet and savoury. Yet despite its humble, agricultural origins and lowly social connotations, I believe ricotta has great transformative powers because the microscopic fat globules trapped within it concentrate the flavours of the other ingredients. I crumble my fresh ricotta over salads of crunchy, crisp, green salad leaves, freshly boiled quails’ eggs, salty slithers of Pata Negra Jamon and golden, oily croutons, warm out of the Aga. I also fleck it on heritage garden tomato, shallot and oregano soup or serve it with freshly grated nutmeg, muscovado sugar and toasted pecan nuts for pudding, alongside a rhubarb compote or a Marsala roasted pear. The permutations are endless because ricotta is the carte blanche, “do-with-it-what-you-will” empty canvas onto which more colourful, rich and aromatic flavours can interplay and jostle.

And it is so easy to make at home. Read through the list of chemical stabilisers, preservatives and additives listed on a supermarket bought tub of ricotta and you might well steer clear of industrially made cheeses for good. Just like real bread, once you have started making real ricotta at home you will never look back.

Fresh cheese, such as fromage frais or cottage cheese, can be made by heating milk and adding a starter culture of bacteria that will cause the milk to curdle. Excess whey is then drained away, and the loose curds will be strained through cloths or small moulds before being turned out and salted. To make ricotta the whey then needs to sit for around 12-24 hours in a cool, but not cold, environment, like a north facing pantry or utility room.

You then reheat the whey with generous amounts of lemon juice, which contains citric acid, and sea salt. The milk should be heated to a temperature around 150 degrees Celsius,  measured with an ordinary jam-making thermometer (do not leave the pan unattended or a milky Vesuvius will erupt in a manner most vorpal). This high temperature and high acidity will denature the proteins in the whey, called albumin and globulin, so that they fall out of the liquid and form a curd. The yield is very small, so do not be disappointed. You then spoon the curds with a slotted spoon and drain them on clean muslin cloths lining a colander which sits in a bowl, so that the remaining whey liquid passes out. The chalk coloured ricotta pieces are left to drain completely in the muslin, and must then be left to cool. Collect the curds and pot them in a sterilised jar with a lid. This is a highly perishable cheese, so after refrigerating overnight I do recommend eating it as quickly as you can. For me, this does not present a challenge.

If you want to make your cheese in a classic moulded shape, then you can buy fresh cheese draining moulds, made out of pierced plastic, from Lakeland stores, online here or by mail-order.

You could also just make fresh cheese from the initial batch of milk, by heating it to 150 degrees Celsius with lemon juice and sea salt, and draining the curds in the same way through a muslin cloth. It can only be called genuine ricotta, however, if it is made by the first method, through re-cooked whey, ricotto in Italian.

The liquid whey left over from the cheesemaking and ricotta making process is often fed to pigs, as is done in Emilia Romagna, where Prosciutto di Parma pigs are fed from the re-cooked residues of the Parmigginao Reggiano industry.

It is very interesting to note the subtle yet distinct chromatic changes that unfold in the making of ricotta. If the process were handled by Farrow and Ball branding experts I suppose they would chart the trajectory as permutating from the colour of Pointing, to Slipper Satin, followed by Tallow, Dorset Cream and maybe even Dayroom Yellow or Straw. In “The Art of Cookery” of 1747 Hannah Glasse even referred to whey as being “orange”.

The colour differentiation of course depends on the breed of animal from which the milk has been procured and the time of year, as well as the diversity and gradation of pasture, from higher to lower ground, and which clover, grass, weed and wildflower mix proportion was present in the diet of the ruminant. I have seen many changes in the shades of whey I have used, from Lombardy, Africa and Britain, where I have lived.

What punctuates the seasonal cheesemaking variations most vividly, for me, are the different recipes in which I use my ricotta. In the winter table I might well decide to make a Mont Blanc inspired pudding, with fresh chestnut puree, brown sugar meringues and crumbled sweet ricotta, whilst in the spring I might opt for nettle top and wild garlic ricotta egg ravioli, served simply with melted butter, sea salt and black pepper. In the summer I make thyme flavoured Torta di Ricotta, with a thin, sugary pastry which I fill with vanilla seed dotted ricotta, fresh strawberries and raspberries and decorate with rose petals. For autumn shooting parties I make little Pignoletto Rosso polenta canapés, crowned with wild mushrooms cooked with flat-leaved Italian parsley, garlic and little flakes of parchment white ricotta on top.

Can you make a feast fit for a king out of homemade ricotta? Maybe I would not go that far, but of three advantages I can surely testify. Your homemade endeavours will undoubtedly convert the ricotta naysayers, impress your friends and save you all manner of embarrassment. There are no shades of grey here, just fresh, soft, moist, lactic crumbs to lighten and brighten the most humble of dishes.

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