In Italy, this cheese ranks with Parmigiano-Reggiano and Gorgonzola, as well as its regional sister mozzarella, in terms of prominence and historical significance, yet it remains mostly unknown stateside. On a trip to Molise and Puglia, two cheesemakers illuminate its time-honored craft and distinctive salty, sharp and creamy flavors.
by Melissa Pellegrino, Matt Scialabba
THE SERPENTINE ROADS THAT CUT THROUGH THE CORE OF MOLISE are torturous at four in the morning. As we wind our way to Agnone to meet Franco Di Nucci, we pass through sleeping stone villages and empty fields in this agriculturally rich and mountainous southern Italian region. Franco is the owner of Caseificio Di Nucci, the town’s oldest dairy, and he specializes in making the area’s renowned caciocavallo cheese. Though we expected to watch early morning cheesemaking, Franco, a small and slender middle-aged man with a groomed mustache and impeccable black suit, brings us instead to a church in the medieval town’s historic center for a ceremony honoring Saint Lucia.
With the exception of a ten-piece orchestra that accompanies the sermon, the service is a typical Italian mass that we sit through groggily. Afterward, Franco leads us to a bar across the street and orders a round of hot chocolate infused with espresso. Speaking softly, he explains the importance of the mass and how it relates to his life’s work—his family has been making caciocavallo in the hills of Molise for more than ten generations. “The pastorale is a hymn that dates back to the 1800s and is a song that I hold close to my heart,” he says. “It was sung on the day in late fall when shepherds would leave their families and take their animals down from the mountains into the plains, where they would live for the season. The song speaks about the sacrifices of the shepherd and about being away from home.”
Rooted in southern Italy’s cattle-herding culture, caciocavallo is made throughout Molise, Puglia, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily, and ranks with Parmigiano-Reggiano and Gorgonzola, as well as its regional sister mozzarella, in terms of prominence and historical significance. Yet it remains mostly unknown stateside. We first discovered it on our way from Campania to Calabria while researching Italian cheese for a book we’re writing on the agriturismi of central and southern Italy. After that, it popped up across southern Italy—melted with tomatoes in phyllo, shaved over pasta, grilled over a wood fire, and cut into wedges and served in lieu of meat as a secondo during a meal.
A staple of the region’s cucina povera, the treasured dishes that came out of the resourcefulness of peasant cuisine, the cow’s milk cheese is highly nutritional and often replaces meat in the diet of southerners. It falls into the cheesemaking category of “pasta filata,” or stretched curd, the same process used for making mozzarella and provolone, to which it is similar in texture and flavor. Though it varies greatly among producers, it should always have a sharp edge, saltiness and toothsome bite. While it is mentioned as far back as 500 B.C., its production seems to have started flourishing in the 15th and 16th centuries. Like many revered Italian foods, time-tested traditions still guide most of its production. The cows that supply its milk still graze in open pastures. While some dairies have more industrialized methods than others,much of the production must happen by hand, and the craft that’s been perfected for generations is preserved amid anyautomation. In many ways, it
representsthe way in which the regional products of Italy become exponentially better as you seek them out at their source—even in a modernizing climate, the product’s integrity is prized above all else, and those who are closest to its traditions are the ones who make, produce and protect it.
In Agnone, Caseificio Di Nucci’s products are beloved—alabaster, soft, milky ricotta; the hard, crumbly version known as ricotta salata; formaggio di vacca, a fatty cow’s milk cheese; creamy butter—but caciocavallo is their crowning achievement. They make three aged versions of it, as well as one flecked with truffle. The family traces its shepherding and cheesemaking roots to 1662, in the nearby mountain town of Capracotta. Several generations built a formidable reputation for the family, then, during the 1950s and 1960s, Franco’s father, Antonio, chose to focus solely on making cheese, primarily caciocavallo. He stopped rearing animals and moved operations from the mountains to Agnone.
With its rich gastronomic history stemming from a wealthy past as a source of metal and copper artisans, there was more demand for their cheese. By sourcing quality milk from small farms, Di Nucci could focus its energies on the craft of making cheese, without the labor-intensive and costly operations of raising animals.
Located outside Agnone’s historic center, the large warehouse where the dairy operates bears little resemblance to Di Nucci’s origins. Franco employs 15 people in production, in addition to the staff that operates his three shops. Their caciocavallo wins awards and accolades from national and international competitions, and has a loyal following. “Rather than take a more industrial approach by introducing machines to manufacture more cheese, we have grown by hiring more people,” Franco says. A grainy black-and-white photo at the dairy of Franco’s grandfather and uncle shaping caciocavallo while seated over a wooden bucket is the Di Nucci symbol and is a constant reminder of their past. “Every day we still stretch and shape all of our cheese by hand, and it comes only from the raw, unpasteurized milk of local cows.”
Our visit to Di Nucci begins with a tasting in Franco’s office. “You need to taste for yourselves why the Di Nucci name has achieved such recognition,” he tells us. He points to the walls, which are adorned with awards and articles. Franco’s caciocavallo is spectacular, especially the three aged versions, whose flavors range from soft and mild to piquant and throat-scratching sharp. Its most prominent characteristic is its creaminess—it’s some of the best caciocavallo we’ve tried.
Since caciocavallo is produced from pasture-raised cows, it changes in flavor from farm to farm, not to mention region to region, so it’s hard to give each production area a definitive set of characteristics. Lesser quality caciocavallocan be rubbery, and either bland or overwhelmingly salty. Di Nucci’s, by contrast, reflects the quality of its milk—high in butterfat, which accounts for the creaminess, with a slight sweetness and herbaceous notes in its semi-aged version, and a remarkablebite in its aged one.
“Cheesemaking is difficult work that requires early morning hours, stamina and strength,” Franco tells us. “Everyone here is vital in the success of our business.’’ The process for making caciocavallo has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Fresh milk collected daily is heated to between 93˚F and 104˚F, and rennet (an extract from stomachs of young, milk-fed calves, sheep or goats that helps form curds) is added, allowing the curds to separate from the liquid (whey) for up to an hour. Cheesemakers then transfer the solids to a stainless steel vat where they pour reheated whey over the curds and leave them for several hours or days to ferment, depending on their production preference. The longer it sits in the whey, the more the flavor develops—sometimes taking on a slight sour note from the fermentation. When ready, they work the curds for several minutes in hot water until pliable, and begin the stretching process that forms caciocavallo into its signature gourd-like shape.
A group of Di Nucci cheesemakers stands in front of long, stainless steel tables punching down fresh cheese into tiny plastic baskets, pressing out any remaining liquid, which spills out onto the slanted table and runs into a bucket that will be used later in their ricotta. Another group huddles around steaming wooden buckets filled with fermented curds and warm whey, stretching and working the curds, and shaping them into balls. After stretching them into shape, workers tie two together and submerge them in cold water to set. Then the gourds go into a saltwater brine called salamoia for 12 to 24 hours, depending on their size. The salt penetrates the cheese, which helps reduce the risk of bad bacteria and adds flavor. Finally, they are straddled over a wooden beam to age, the inspiration for the name caciocavallo, which means “cheese on horseback,” because now they resemble saddlebags.
A girl pushes a giant metal rack past us draped in caciocavallo gourds that seem to swing in rhythm to the room’s frenetic pace as we follow Franco downstairs to see the dairy’s aging rooms. Historically, the popularity of caciocavallo was born from the ease in which it can be prepared and left to age. Once straddled over the beam, it can remain untouched until ready for eating, without tending, unlike flat cheese, which needs to be turned.
The first temperature-controlled aging chamber has thousands of fresh caciocavallo dangling from metal dowels. After just sixty days, the slightly aged caciocavallo, known as semi-stagionato, has a sweet flavor redolent of the pastures the cattle graze on, and a creamy texture. Wedges of the cheese are eaten as snacks, served as an appetizer or melted in dishes. This is the youngest version of the cheese—the majority of the gourds will be sold after two months—and is the most popular and least expensive type.
A small percentage of the cheeses will be moved into another room for an additional 60 to 120 days, and then brought to market as the stagionato version. Saltier, with a sharper bite, it has more spicy notes. We found that its hard, slightly drier texture pairs well with robust southern Italian red wines like Cirò from Calabria, or Primitivo from Puglia, which round out its piquant notes. Or, it can be used in lieu of Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino to grate over pasta, soup or risotto, and into fillings or sauces.
See a slideshow on the making of caciocavallo here.
The final room is cave-like and lined with stone. Much smaller than the others and with less light, a heady, intoxicating smell permeates the space. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, we notice the difference in this caciocavallo. The most rare and expensive version of the cheese, known as stagionato “extra,” it ages in a stone cave for up to two years. This crumbly, intense cheese is Di Nucci’s most extraordinary. A protective mold forms around the gourds as they age, giving them an ashy appearance, while inside, the cheese turns from milky white to a deep straw hue. This cheese is best eaten after dinner, accompanied by a sweet dessert wine to soften its bite.
Di Nucci hosts special dinners and events for the local community in a special room on the second floor that’s clad in painted tiles depicting bucolic images of cheese making, and the transumanza, with scenes of shepherds herding their animals down from the mountains to the warmer, green plains of Puglia during winter. Also, a collection of antique cheese making equipment showcases how far the craft has evolved.
The neighboring regions of Molise and Puglia have long had a partnership when it comes to caciocavallo production. As we learned at Di Nucci, during the transumanza, shepherds in Molise moved their cows to Puglia’s sunny plains, where they could flourish during winter months with access to green pastures. Although the tradition is rare today, a path known as the traturo still leads from Molise into Puglia.
Puglia possesses one of the most fertile landscapes in Italy. With its warm Mediterranean climate, sunny days and immense flatlands, it’s no surprise that its animals produce some of the country’s best milk for cheesemaking—especially caciocavallo. Masseria Madonna dell’Arco, a farm and agriturismo near Martina Franca, a town in Puglia’s Taranto province, embodies small-scale cheese production. Owners Angela Maria Sforza and her husband, Giovanni, restored a crumbling network of trulli, Puglia’s famous conical stone houses, and turned them into
small apartments for tourism while operating a farm, restaurant and stores on-site. They reconstructed the property’s large barn that houses chickens, sheep, pigs and, most importantly, a mixed herd of about forty-five cows who spend their days grazing in the surrounding farmland.
Work at their masseria begins at four in the morning, when
a farmhand herds twelve cows at a time into the milking stalls. The milking process takes place twice a day, and only the farm’s milk is used to produce its different handmade cheeses, which include burrata, mozzarella, scamorza and ricotta, though Madonna dell’Arco’s caciocavallo is its most prominent and best seller.
The cheese facility is much smaller and more intimate than what we saw at Di Nucci. A two-man team runs the operation, while Giovanni pops in from time to time to check on his workers. “These guys don’t need much supervision,” he explains, his toughened, weather-beaten face softening into a smile. “I’ve got a thousand things to worry about in our day-to-day operations, but the quality of our cheese is a constant because of the freshness of our milk that we take every day from over there,” he says, gesturing toward the stall behind him.
The sweet smell of milk wafts through the workspace. As it heats, the two workers divide the labor, one making caciocavallo, mozzarella and burrata while the other reheats the whey to make fresh ricotta. As the fresh cheese finishes, it is transferred to the shop attached to the facility, while the caciocavallo is placed in a refrigerator to age. Unlike Di Nucci, Madonna dell’Arco has the capacity to produce only the semi-aged caciocavallo.
Giuseppe, the Sforza’s son, is home for vacation from school while we are there, and he lends a hand in the on-site shop where they sell their cheese. “I am studying agriculture at the University of Bologna and hope to follow in the footsteps of my parents,” he tells us. “I have great plans to make the farm a tourist destination and expand the agriturismo.” The family also sells their cheese from a refrigerated van that drives door to door through surrounding neighborhoods. But our best experience with Madonna dell’Arco’s cheese happens in their restaurant.
Beneath brick vaulted ceilings in a white stone room that was once used as a hay depository, diners devour Pugliese meals. Cheese makes its way into nearly every course, and the multi-plate antipasti showcases nearly every variety produced at the dairy. One night, all the farm’s dairy products are featured in ten plates at the beginning of a lengthy, marathon meal. The chefs work cheese into many first and second courses, and caciocavallo is generously sprinkled over Giuseppe’s grandmother’s hand-made orecchiette. It is grated into veal meatballs for depth of flavor, and thick slices are lightly grilled for a second course. We’re struck by the abundance and variety this small farm produces. It’s still a mystery to us why a cheese so emblematic of this area—in all our visits to the north, we never once came across it—is virtually unknown in the U.S. It’s worth finding—Murray's Cheese and Di Palo's are good sources—and tasting, though our experience at Madonna dell’Arco made it clear that perhaps the best way to experience the cheese, as southern Italians are quick to show you, is at the table.
Photos by David Yoder
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