Say Cheese: What I Tasted in Abruzzo
This slightly blurry photo, taken with my iPhone, is a shot of the first food I ate on my recent trip to Italy: fresh mozzarella knots produced in the beautiful, unspoiled National Park of Abruzzo and brought to my table at Ristorante Plistia, in the picturesque mountain town of Pescasseroli. For two weeks, my family and I traveled around Abruzzo, the rugged, mountainous region that extends east from the Apennine range in the center of the country to the Adriatic coast. I was there to research a book about pasta that I am working on, but naturally I ate a lot of cheese, too.
If you had heard anything about Abruzzo lately, it was undoubtedly that the region’s capital, L’Aquila, was struck by a strong earthquake this past spring. The city remains closed to outsiders and there are still thousands of quake refugees whose homes were destroyed and who remain in temporary housing. But for most of the region, unaffected by the earthquake, life has begun to return to normal.
Abruzzo is my favorite region of Italy, and not just because it is where my mother is from. Unlike Tuscany or Venice or the Amalfi coast, Abruzzo is not overrun by tourists. In fact, in many parts of the region the opposite is true, and it is still possible to go for days without seeing another foreigner. Its high mountain ranges make for great skiing in winter and its hills are dotted with vineyards, olive orchards and medieval towns clutching the rocks into which they were built.
The hills are dotted with other things as well; namely, the sheep and cows that produce the cheeses the region is known for. The mozzarella is so milky and tender it's practically spreadable; buttery, the tear-drop-shaped scamorza, which is mozzarella that has been aged for just a few days; giuncata, a pure white, raw cow’s-milk cheese molded in baskets that has a sweet and delicate flavor; sheep’s-milk ricotta that tastes of the mountain grasses that the sheep graze on, and pecorino, sheep’s-milk cheese that varies greatly in taste and texture depending on how long it has been aged.
Pecorino, by the way, is not just the sharp stuff you grate over pasta as an alternative to Parmigiano-Reggiano. In Italy, pecorino is a catch-all term for cheese made from sheep’s milk. The pecorino cheeses in Abruzzo range from soft, mild table cheeses to the hard grating variety. Wherever you go in Abruzzo, you are likely to be offered a plate of cheeses including various types of pecorino, usually paired with salumi, as an antipasto.
One of the highlights of our trip was searching out the cheese shops in the various Abruzzesi villages, and chancing upon the caseifici (cheese farms) as we meandered along the winding mountain roads. Two places in particular stood out.
In Pescasseroli, located smack in the middle of the National Park of Abruzzo, we followed the signs to the Bottega del Formaggio, where all the cheeses I mentioned were on mouth-watering display. The small shop is run by a woman whose husband makes them, from those adorable fresh mozzarella knots to ricottas spiked with herbs, spices and even black truffle. One of the shop’s specialties is ricotta farcita (stuffed ricotta), cow’s-milk ricotta that has been mixed with various fillings — sauteed mushrooms, greens or sausage, for example — then baked. I’m working on my own recipe for ricotta farcita and promise to share it when I’ve got it down.
At the suggestion of Cesidio Decina, owner of Ristorante Plistia, we drove to Scanno, where on the outskirts of town we visited Gregorio Rotolo, who runs Valle Scannese, an agriturismo farm specializing in sheep’s-milk cheeses. Rotolo is perhaps most renowned for his Gregoriano, a soft, raw sheep’s-milk cheese with a bloomy rind and a paste that gets runnier and more aromatic as it ages. As much as I enjoyed the Gregoriano, I think my favorite of Rotolo’s cheeses is his Ricotta Scorza Nera (ricotta with black rind), an organic sheep’s-milk ricotta that is salted on the outside and aged for 100 days. During aging, an outer layer of mold develops and gives the cheese a complex flavor that verges on that of a mild blue. It’s extraordinary.
Now that I’ve whetted your appetite for the cheeses of Abruzzo, I must deliver the bad news: You are unlikely to find any of those cheeses here. I am guessing that this is because many of Abruzzo’s cheeses are still produced by small farms that don’t export. However, there are somewhat comparable cheeses available. Balducci, Wegmans and Whole Foods all carry fresh cow’s-milk ricotta, fresh mozzarella and pecorino cheeses. Look for pecorino Toscano, as it is softer and milder than pecorino Romano, and thus more like the wonderful table pecorino cheeses of Abruzzo.
-- Domenica Marchetti, whose Web site is DomenicaCooks.com.
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