Rachel Roddy’s recipe for Sicilian salted ricotta and tomato salad
Whey is teased by artful Sicilian hands into traditional salted ricotta, never better than when enjoyed in this simple tomato salad
orena is lifting ricotta from the 150-litre pan in the corner of the room into small, perforated tubs. It’s 10am. She has been at the caseificio (dairy) since just after 5am, along with her nephew, Aurelio. It is July and a combination of dog-day Sicilian heat and lambing means there’s less milk. Today there was just shy of 100 litres, from sheep kept by Lorena’s husband a few miles outside the city. Most of the work has already been done; the milk has been heated with salt and rennet and, thanks to the alchemy of coagulation, separated into curds and whey. The curds have been cut and pressed into forms, at which point they are called tuma . The remaining whey in the huge pan will be used to cook the forms of tuma for a few hours, after which they will be called primo sale (first salt), until they are old enough to be pecorino Siciliano .
I arrive to see what Lorena, once a hospital lab technician but now reborn as a cheesemaker, refers to as the guadagno pulito – her clean earnings, the something-for-nothing – the ricotta. If you’ve ever seen whey, you will probably agree that it is pretty unpromising, yellow and thin. However, it has more to give. Before the tuma is cooked, more milk and rennet are added to the whey, and it is recooked or reheated, and soft white clots, given the same name as the process, ricotta , come to the surface. From seemingly nothing, to something so wobbly and good, which seems a miraculous thing.
As the clots of ricotta bob on the surface, floating like fat clouds, Lorena uses a slotted spoon with a scooping sweep to lift the ricotta into the perforated plastic pots. She also lifts some ricotta into a traditional cane cavagna , the containers my Sicilian partner remembers from childhood. A man on a motorbike with the cones hanging from the sides would putt-putt down the street, while the kids would wait on doorsteps with plates to receive the contents.
Technically not a cheese but a latticino (milk product), ricotta seems all the more precious because it is made from something that would otherwise be thrown away. While ricotta is made all over southern Italy, varying by place, regional preferences and the season, Sicilian ricotta is notable for its tender, wobbly texture when freshly made – somewhere between junket and just-set scrambled egg. It has a clean, creamy, sweet-but-savoury, and just-a-bit sheepish flavour.
While I am at the caseificio, customers arrive asking if the ricotta is ready, the steam from the pot misting their specs and sunglasses. Older customers bring pans to collect their portions, with some asking for extra siero (whey), of which there is plenty still in the pan. One man tells us that he will treat it like a soup and dip bread in while watching his favourite soap opera. Beyond eating it as soon as possible with bread, local recipes for ricotta include a filling for ravioli or gnocchi, as part of baked pasta or impanata (filled bread), for cakes, cannoli, or in the various fried pastries that fill the counters.
With its ephemeral wobble, fresh ricotta is not an enduring food, especially in summer, so people have found ways of preserving it by salting. Traditionally done at home in dark corners with trays of salt, salted ricotta is now made on both a small and large scale. Lorena shows me how to rub a three-day old ricotta with salt until it is encrusted. After this, it will take a month, a second salting and careful draining for 500g of fresh ricotta to shrink into a round, ricotta salata a quarter of its original size.
The texture, too, is transformed – from soft to firm, and compact enough to be grated, or pared into crumbly-edged slices. Salting transforms the flavour, too: creamy and shy wobbles are given sharp, salty edges, with that sheepishness becoming more pronounced.
Ricotta salata is essential for pasta alla norma and makes a brilliant grating cheese. It is also a natural partner for tomatoes – especially small and sweet cherry ones – and today’s salad. Halve 500g cherry tomatoes, finely slice a medium-sized red onion, drizzle with eight tablespoons of olive oil and grate over (or finely slice) 75g salted ricotta. It’s a favourite summer salad served alongside sausages or fish.
While Lorena wraps my cone, we decide that, unlike its fresh form, ricotta salata is also a good traveller. Which, for those of us who don’t live opposite a Sicilian caseificio, can only be a good thing.