There's cheese, and there's... well other cheese. Something like ricotta scanta has the beauty of inventive and food-saving consciousness. Yet cheeses can also be real masterpieces, in the sense of a craftsman's best work. Just like the best caciocavalli and provoloni out there: caiocavallo Podolico, provolone del Monaco, some of the best caciocavalli Silani, and my own favourite, Ragusano.
You don't often hear about Southern Italian cheese when the best Italian cheeses are named. It's almost always the Parmigiano Reggiano, Gorgonzola, Taleggio triad. What a lack of fantasy! It's a pity that these are the only cheeses mentioned, because Italy has more than 400 to choose from and many are at least as delicious and at times breathtaking as these three. Southern Italian cheeses suffer from another problem. They're clearly "something different", coming from a unique gastronomic background, much unlike Northern Italian cheese which often share characteristics with their alpine relatives, be they French, Swiss or Austrian. And different is good in my book, as long as it ain't weird.
Ragusano is a cow's raw milk cheese hailing from the Iblean plateau and the nearby city of Ragusa (doh!) in Sicily: it has been called the king of the island cheese by many Italian cheese experts, and while I haven't tasted all of the island's cheeses I do agree it is a great, imposing and important example of the craft. The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size of the cheese, and it's shape: a 12 to 16 kilo rectangular block which also gives the cheese it's Sicilian nickname scaluni i.e. step. I've occasionally seen a few of these babies on sale in Italy and they're impressive, but maybe it's just my being a male sample of the species, you know... boys and size.
What leaves me far more startled is that Ragusano is a pasta filata or spun curd cheese (like mozzarella), usually shaped by hand. Now, if you've never seen how these cheeses are shaped let me just describe this briefly: the cheese curd is fermented till it forms, on heating, those nice threads everyone loves on pizza, kneaded and shaped. It is very important to have a smooth, hole and puncture free "sheet" of cheese for proper shaping, salting and eventually aging. I've tried shaping mozzarella, something almost every school child in Naples gets to do in one of the standard field trips of elementary school's curriculum, and it's far from easy. Mozzarella on the other hand is not usually bigger than 500 grams, and shaping something this size by hand takes practice, but is far from impossible. Now think about the same procedure, only with a 15 kilo ball of curd, that has to be perfectly smooth, working only with your hands and maybe a wooden stick. This is what I call craftsmanship... I'm sure I'd end up gobbled up by the cheese blob. That would explain the stick. Once the huge ball is shaped it is then placed into wooden moulds, giving the characteristic shape. After some time the forms are salted, tied pair-wise and slung on a pole to age for a variable time, depending on the desired cheese. This way of aging cheese gives origin to the name caciocavallo, cacio, cheese, a cavallo, on a horseback.
I know fresh and semi-aged ragusano are often used in cooking in Sicily, but I'd rather leave any comments on that to our experts from Modica. I love the aged, stagionato kind, especially when it is made from free grazing cows of the local Modicana race, laden with the aroma of local herbs. (Nice to know that science has an explanation for my empiric observation.) The aged cheese has very little resemblance to a classic pasta filata cheese: no elastic paste rather a crumbly consistance more typical of Parmigiano. And the aroma! Herbaceous, piquant, intense... a real meditation cheese, great with wine. For research purpose only I tested a match with a very nice Nero d'Avola from Cusumano: very nice, with both cheese and wine balancing each other. Wine and cheese, the solution for the snobbish gourmet who's too lazy to cook.
Give me a form of Ragusano stagionato, a cellar full of the best Sicilian reds and bring me plenty of fresh bread every day. And then, please, come back in two month's time: I'm enjoying my food, thank you.