A few weeks ago, on the eGullet Socitey's forums, someone was arguing that French cheese is better than Italian because of their dominating the stinky cheese scene. Let's forget about the silly "who's better" question, both countries have great traditions, different, sure, but both delicious. Yet, when it comes to stinky, It's hard to meet a stinkier cheese than the Italian ricotta scanta. It can hold nicely with the more olfactory-challenging blue cheeses, Vacherin, Munster and the like.
In Italian we have a saying: del porco non si butta niente, meaning you can use any part of the pig. I often have the feeling that cheese is treated in a similar way in some parts of Italy. Take ricotta, practically a byproduct of cheese making: once cheese is made there still quite a lot of nourishing protein in the whey. Milk has two main proteins (plus many others in lesser amounts) casein and lactalbumin: while casein clots once it is exposed to rennet, taking along most of the milk's fat, lactoalbumin does not. We'll never know who came up with the idea of heating whey to 90-100°C, probably someone in ancient Greece. but whoever did had just discovered ricotta. Lactoalbumin cheeses are not exclusive to Italy, there are examples in many Mediterranean countries, yet no other country consumes as much as Italians do with ricotta. OK, so you've still got some whey left from the ricotta, does that got thrown out? Usually not, it still has some milk sugar lactose, which can have its uses. Sometimes this "second" whey is used as starter culture to acidify the curds used to make pasta filata, spun curd, cheeses like mozzarella or caciocavallo. See, nothing wasted!
Let's go back to ricotta though. While this is a delicious cheese, especially when made from ewe's or buffalo's milk, it is certainly not made to win any aging contest. Ricotta is best eaten fresh, possibly the same day it is made. A properly made one is creamy, refreshing, slightly buttery and aromatic at times I know what you're thinking: what about the stuff you get in supermarkets, that lasts weeks closed. Sure, but it also tastes like crap, and apart from that it is much drier than normal ricotta, often saltier, heat treated and cooled to last longer. Supermarket ricotta is to the real, fresh one, what rubbery mozzarella is to D.O.P. Buffalo's Mozzarella from Campania. It is, in a way, great that mass refrigeration is a relatively phenomenon: through the centuries Italian cheese makers have tried to find a way to make ricotta durable, Smoking, baking, drying, salting are all still used with success. My favorite though is the method used in Puglia: just let the ricotta go bad and you'll have ricotta forte or scanta, strong or pungent ricotta.
When I say "let it go bad" I'm simplifying, yet the principle is that: take ricotta, let it go sour for about a week, then stir it every 2-3 days, salting occasionally and allowing for the liquid forming to flow away. After about 100 days, you might end up with a creamy mass with a very strong, yet inviting smell: ricotta scanta. Not that I would try this at home. Apart the very real risk of everything going bad, there's the smell: just opening the little glass you see in the picture for a few seconds fills my kitchen with the unmistakable aroma of ricotta scanta, a pungent, piquant and creamy aroma. Fascinating how food gone bad can become such a specialty. If you firmly believe great culinary discoveries are only born in the luxurious kitchens of restaurants, give poverty and hunger a thought for a change: nothing pushes people to new foods like the need to eat.
Ricotta scanta tastes as it smells, extremely aromatic and piquant and with a definite bitter note, at least if you have the guts to eat it pure. To be honest, you just do not. Ricotta forte is usually used with pasta to replace grated cheese, traditionally in winter; orecchiette with tomato sauce and ricotta forte is a classic of the cuisine of Lecce. The closes one gets to using it pure is spread on bread... a bit like marmite. I've been using it to give pasta with vegetables a more exciting twist, penne with confit peppers, herbs and ricotta forte has been a real surprise. Stinky? Who said stinky?