From Burrata to Ricotta Forte: A Rough Guide to Puglian Cheese
Created for Ostuni restaurant.
In Puglia, cheese is for eating every day, and, as is always the case with Puglian food, it is a strictly territorial affair.
Not like the complex cheeses of France, Puglia’s cheeses are relatively simple but strong and immensely gratifying, eaten as antipasto, atop pasta, or in their panino: a type of sandwich traditionally made for taking to work in the fields – made with bread, cured meat, cheese, and nothing else.
Perhaps the most famous cheese to hail from the fertile lands of Puglia is cheese-of-the-moment burrata. From LA to London, this indulgent off-shoot of mozzarella has claimed legions of fans, who, after a taste, are converted by the creamy intensity of this loveable artisan creation. And, really, who can blame them?
During a visit to Puglia earlier this year we were able to see some burrata, and plenty of other regional cheeses, being made at the hands of our artisan cheese producer Masseria Fragnite of Ceglie Messapica in Southern Puglia.
Led by the infectiously jolly Cosimo, we visit at (what feels like) the break of dawn, and his team are already at work in the small factory neighbouring their lush farm, a large off-white room made moody-looking by the morning light.
His workers are fulfilling their part of the cheese-making process with expert, repetitive hand movements, incessantly splashing excess water onto the floor as they go in a manner that can only be described as rigorously Italian (shoe covers required).
Cosimo is making mozzarella, pouring boiling hot water into a pot of milk curds and mixing it with a wooden paddle, teasing it and dramatically stretching it way above his head. He repeats this until he’s happy with the consistency, then moulds the mixture deftly and fantastically into various shapes – the famous nodini, little knots, classic mozzarella balls, treccia, perfect plaits – each one taking him just seconds to make; a true artisan at work.
Despite burrata’s cult status, it actually has humble origins as a product made from the leftovers of mozzarella production. We watch as torn strips of leftover mozzarella is mixed with fresh double cream (stracciatella) and ladled into a tougher outer sack, also made from mozzarella, and tied, creating this pride of Puglia that the western world has fallen in love with.
Far from the creamy haze of burrata, Masseria Fragnite also produces ricotta forte, a less famous but locally loved regional cheese. What starts off as ricotta has been double fermented in a jar for months, morphing into a powerhouse of pungency with a tang to make you stop in your tracks. As harsh as it sounds, this concoction is also intensely enjoyable, and is typically served with sweet cherry tomatoes to offset the powerful strength of the cheese.
At Ostuni, we are proud to serve all of these cheeses in one form or another. Burrata as an antipasti or with Foglia d’ulivo pasta, cardoncelli mushrooms and truffle, friselle (a type of hard Puglian bread) with fresh tuna tartar and stracciatella, heritage tomato, pepper, cucumber, capers, cacioricotta cheese (a salty hardened ricotta made with added rennet) and friselle salad, ricotta forte with cherry tomatoes, and a selection of fresh Puglian cheeses from our counter, like strong hard cheeses massaro, contadino and gustoso, and softer stretched-curd cheese caciocavallo, served with wild honey or quince jam, both from Puglia.
What we call “picante”, these cheeses are strong and well-flavoured, not fussy and complex. And, like wine, we think of cheese as an apt expression of territory; portraying the flavours, styles and even the attitudes of the region in a single satisfying bite.
Simple but strong and so satisfying, we explore Puglian cheese: visiting our cheese supplier in Ceglie & giving a rough guide to the cheese of the region.