What a day. Last night, Kristin and I met our fellow companions on the Abruzzo Cibus Culinary Tours . The managing director of the tour, Massimo Criscio, called us down to dinner, and at the table we met four fabulous Italian-American women from Joy-zee (aka New Jersey, for all non-Joyzee folks). One woman’s family was originally from Abruzzo, and Massimo had helped her reconnect with her extended family earlier that afternoon. Massimo says that this type of genealogy work is one of the most personally rewarding aspects of his job.
Over a glass of merlot, which had been made by Massimo’s father, everyone got to know each other. Then the creations of Chef Dino Paganelli began to flow forth from the kitchen. The highlights were the plate of three bruschetta (one topped with truffle oil) and a simple pasta with shavings of fresh, local summer truffles. I interviewed Chef Paganelli, who is a consultant for an Italian delicacies company whose products can be found in Dean and Deluca, to talk more about his work with truffles. After the tremendous meal, everyone retired to rest up for the next day’s trip to a mozzarella factory.
But the next morning started off rough. Kristin and I were the first ones down, but we were wearing sandals, which Massimo informed us were the wrong type of shoes. He also informed us that we were running late. The Jersey ladies hadn’t been awake when he’d knocked on their doors. We had a tight schedule to keep, and, after a hurried breakfast, we left about 45 minutes late.
Fortunately, when we arrived at the Caseificio di Pasquo cheese factory, in the town of Agnano, everything was fine. What an experience! Massimo knows how to give his guests an experience that can be found nowhere else.
He took us through the process of making cheese: First, the fresh cow’s milk is heated and cail (a form of the rennet enzyme) is mixed in to make curds. Second, the curds are drained, then shredded. From here, different types of cheese are made. For burrata, an extremely fresh and creamy cheese, the shredded cheese is again heated up until it acquires a dough-like texture. This dough is blown up like a balloon, then stuffed with the unheated, shredded cheese. When you cut into a ball of burrata, the cream pours out. This cheese has a three-day shelf life, making it difficult (if not impossible) to find in the U.S.
To make mozzarella, the dough is mixed by hand, then individual shapes are formed from it by pulling and tearing. Massimo handed out samples of mozzarella fresh off the assembly line. The taste was pure. Later, he told me a little more of Italy’s cheese-making history: Shepherds once brought their flocks of sheep from the dry land of Puglia up through Abruzzo in search of fresh grass. Their sheep, pecora in Italian, produced milk along the way, and they didn’t want to waste it. Nor did they want to carry it, so they left it in secret holes filled with hay and stone along the way. These holes are called fosse, and today some cheeses are called di fossa, which means they were aged in these holes. When the shepherds returned from the mountain pastures in the fall, they would pick up the cheeses that they’d left along the way. This type of cheese was named Pecorino after the pecora that made it. Imagine walking along a mountain trail and stumbling upon a stockpile of Pecorino cheese in a hole in the ground. . . .
Caseificio di Pasquo specializes in a traditional cheese of the Abruzzo region, caciocavallo. Caciocavallo is shaped like a giant raindrop and aged, while hanging, at least three months. It’s not my favorite cheese—I think it lacks depth. It tastes quite sharp, like a salty, hard provolone.
When we made it back to the Palazzo Tour D’Eau, we had about an hour and a half of down time before meeting Cheryle Cotton-Molino, who would take us into the Palazzo Tour D’Eau kitchen and help us create a meal made completely from fresh Abruzzo ingredients. More about that in my next post.
Written By and photos by Mattie Bamman for EuropeUpClose.com