Bringing Italy Back Home
While exploring the booths of cheese at the big cheese festival in Bra Italy (home of Slow Foods), I was amazed at the number of different cheeses in this style from various regions of southern Italy.
So when I returned to my "cheese lab" the quest began to find out what it was and how to make it in a traditional style.
Get to Know Caciocavallo
If you have a little understanding of the Italian language, you will have quickly figured out that Caciocavallo literally translates to the "Horse Cheese" or more like "over the horseback cheese."
The name comes from the tradition of making and tying together in pairs and then hanging over a long elevated pole to age, just as they must have done long ago when they were thrown over the "Cavallo" or donkey's back to transport to the markets.
Caciocavallo originates from Southern Italy and is a traditional, stretched curd cheese made from cow or ewes milk and currently even buffalo milk. It is stretched into a natural gourd or teardrop shape with a knot at the top so that it can be tied at the thin end with a cord to hang.
After a period of three months, this cheese can be eaten as a table cheese but after an aging period of two years it can be used for grating with much more character. These are sometimes smoked (Affumicata).
A form of Caciocavallo will weigh at the most about 3 pounds (1.5 k) and is shaped rather like a long-necked gourd.
On a darker note, in Italian language the expression "to end up like Caciocavallo" means to be hanged.
A Bit of History
Caciocavallo is made throughout southern Italy .. 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 in North America. The process goes back in history to several hundred years BC.
The cows that produce milk still graze in open pastures and even though some dairies have more industrialized methods, much of the production is still done by hand. Therefore the craft that's been perfected for generations is preserved amid automation.
Variations in Style
The cheese can be allowed to ripen to varying ages and styles:
Semi-Stagionato At sixty days, the slightly aged Caciocavallo has a sweet flavor from the pastures the cattle graze on, and a creamy texture. The majority of the hanging cheese will be sold after two months and is the most popular and least expensive type.
Stagionato After another 60 to 120 days the cheese becomes drier, saltier, with a sharper bite, plus it has more spicy notes.
Stagionato “Extra" The most rare and expensive version of the cheese, ages in a stone cave for up to two years. This is a crumbly, intense cheese and is the most extraordinary. During the aging a protective mold forms around the cheese giving them a rustic appearance but inside, the cheese turns from milky white to a deep straw yellow. This cheese is best eaten after dinner, accompanied by a sweet dessert wine to soften its bite.
Also with Additions The fresher versions can also be made with additions of cracked black pepper, spicy red peppers, even truffles (tartufa) and other flavoring additions. In these cases the mellow cheese and the character of the additions meld into very complex flavors.
Pasta Filata, a Range of Styles
This group can be quite diverse and will include a very wide range of cheeses:
Mozzarella: The softest of these are the Mozzarella group which can range from the soft fresh cheese to the firmer pizza cheese. The character of these are their high level of moisture and mild flavor from aging times that range from fresh to a few weeks old.
Caciocavallo: This group is characterized by a medium moisture level, a firmer texture, and a more complex flavor. They are usually found in medium sizes of 2-3 lbs. and are predominately made in southern Italy which is noted for its grazing lands. Most of these are in the medium moisture range. Often these are still produced by small producers with much of the process still done by hand.
Provolone: These cheeses can sometimes be small but are usually much larger than the Caciocavallo group. These cheese are often found in much larger sizes and usually much drier with longer aging. The result can be a very complex and very piquant flavor. This group had its origin in southern Italy as well but during the mid-late 19th century as the movement to the industrial north of Italy took place, Provolone followed. Today the current production is mostly in the North of Italy focused around the Po River Valley.
The difference between the Caciocavallo and Provolone can sometimes be blurred because of their similar origin of style. You will find very moist small Provolone as a table cheese and you will find drier and larger Caciocavallo cheese such as the famous Caciocavallo Ragusano from Sicily.
As we have already mentioned earlier, this cheese is of the Pasta Filata or stretched curd style in which the cheese proteins develop a unique character for forming long chains and will stretch out into long threads when heated.
The cheese first relies on a natural dairy bacteria to convert the milk sugars (lactose) to lactic acid. The milk is then heated before the bacteria begins working. Then after a small amount of lactic acid is produced, the rennet is added and the milk allowed to sit quiet while a firm curd develops.
Once the firm curd develops it can be cut to release the whey. The curd is then stirred for varying lengths of time and the temperature may be raised during this time. The size of the cut, how long it is stirred, and the final temperature will determine the final moisture and in turn the amount of time the cheese should be aged.
Once the curd reaches the proper moisture (this is quite variable depending on the cheeses targeted here) the whey is drained and the curds consolidated in draining bags or forms.
At this point the curds will be kept warm while the bacteria continue to reduce the lactose to lactic acid. As this happens the taste of the cheese will go from a sweet milk flavor to a moderate acid flavor.
The final acid is quite important because the ability of the curd to stretch will be determined by a very specific acid level (pH 5.3-5.2) and temperature (130-140F). Too much acid and the cheese will not retain its shape and texture but too little acid and the cheese will not stretch. The final moisture of the cheese will also determine how well the cheese stretches. If it is too dry the stretch will poor and too moist and the final cheese will not keep its shape and texture.
The final step in this process is the stretching. The acidified curd is cut into narrow strips and heated in hot water or whey until it begins to stretch. The stretching is important for this style because it realigns the proteins in the cheese to give its characteristic texture and mouthfeel.
The Caciocavallo needs no forms because the final form is done by stretching in your hands and forming into an elongated pear shape.
When you reach the final form, the cheese must be chilled in cold water to retain its shape and then brined. When it comes out of the brine it is ready to be tied and hung until ready to eat.