After sitting at the back of the bus on a long, twisty drive, I feel extremely nauseous. So when we stop (Amen, Jesus!), I push my way out hoping to have some fresh air revive my soul. But that doesn’t help one bit. The foul smell of manure and ammonia invade my nasal passage, raising every fine hair in there. We’re on a farm surrounded by hundreds of sheep.
This deep, earthy, dirty scent is quite pungent yet bittersweet, reminding me of my late grandfather and his favourite place: our family’s beach house on an island off of Trinidad’s northwest coast (“down the islands”, we call it). There, he bred sheep at the top of the hill, only to butcher them on special occasions — or whenever he felt like it; a Sunday delight with hours of prep. So many of our gatherings on the island were spent anxiously sitting around a fire, stomachs growling, waiting for a hanging carcass to crisp up to our liking. But not without the wind carrying an unforgiving stench to the shore to remind us of where our food came from.
That’s exactly what the third week of Anna Tasca Lanza’s Cook The Farm Program is all about: “Animals, Ethics and Identity”, understanding and appreciating the processes involved in meat and dairy production. And so, we’re visiting Caseificio Privitera, a dad-and-son operation ran by Fillippo and Enzo Privitera, to witness cheese in the making.
Fillippo and Enzo work every single day, seven days a week (yes, even Sundays!). There are 500 sheep on the land, but only 300 are milked at a time, by hand, twice a day — once at 5 a.m. and again before 6 p.m. During each milking, they collect roughly 400 liters (~800 liters a day) but that number depends strictly on the time of year and how productive the sheep’s udder are.
After the raw milk is collected on the morning shift, it’s immediately poured into a stainless-steel cylinder and carefully heated to 38ºC. Paying close attention to temperature is important because artisanal cheesemongers hardly ever want to pasteurize their milk; that’s just considered flavour sabotage. Like honey, the characteristics of your product — the color, smell and taste — are determined by what animal is involved, what they feed on and whether the milk is raw or pasteurized.
The World Health Organization has considered recommending a ban on the production of raw milk cheeses to eliminate the risk of Listeria and E. coli, but pasteurization is only essential for industrial cheesemakers whose milk is pooled and stored from various farms and thousands of different animals. It only takes one diseased animal or one dirty udder to ruin everything — and machines can’t pick up on that. But Fillipo, who touches each udder and knows his sheep so well that he can tell them apart, can. He explains, “You know when to milk the animal and when not to. It’s the difference between a person that’s alive and a person that’s dead.”
Once the milk reaches the right temperature, the rennet — which is usually the stomach lining of a young milk-fed calf, but in this case, a bioengineered enzyme that functions identically to that — is added to help the milk coagulate and form into curds. The mixture is left to rest for 30 minutes to an hour.
After that time, the “junket” forms: a light but solid curd mass. Fillipo fills the tank up with buckets of boiling water, disturbing the curd by aggressively whisking it around until bite-sized rounds remain (think cottage cheese). A vacuum is lowered into a strainer, sucking all of the excess whey out and transferring it to another cylinder that’s heated by a furnace filled with wood and olive pits left back from the family’s olive oil production.
Once most of the liquid is drawn out, Fillipo grabs a knife and seamlessly slices into the thick curd like a sponge. It’s like one of those satisfying Instagram videos you can’t stop watching. His clean cuts create a checked pattern in the pot, each opening slowly making room for more whey to leak out. He reaches his bare hands — up to his elbow — into the boiling water to transfer massive blocks of curd to plastic baskets. Beautiful woven wooden baskets were used back in the day, but ever since the EU enforced strict health and safety regulations, cheesemongers had to turn to stainless-steel.
His perpetually pink palms compress the curds, while gravity and its weight forces out whatever little whey remains. It’s flipped and left to drain for a few more hours. Not a single drop goes to waste.
At this stage, the cheese is referred to as “tuma”. But with a bit of aging, it’s destined to be either primo sale (after one day) or pecorino (after a few weeks or months).
In the heated cylinder that’s set at 75ºC, all of the excess whey from the pecorino joins more fresh milk and a generous sprinkle of salt to form ricotta, which directly translates to “re-cooked”. Makes sense, right?
Sweet-smelling steam rises off the surface of the pot and warms the room while pillowy curds take shape. Fillipo dips individual-sized plastic baskets into the bath, accumulating chunks of squishy pulp. Occasionally, his fingers plunge into the scalding hot liquid but his smile never fades. He carefully lifts the baskets over a ramp he created to catch any liquids that try to escape — whatever’s left is used as a brine for the cheese until it’s sold.
By the way, Ricotta is NOT cheese — it’s just considered a dairy product.
The sky is bright blue but the hills are still dusted with the mist of the morning sun. It’s now 10 a.m.
Just in time, the room lights up like a disco as two regulars parade in, striking the crystal chandelier that hangs in the doorway.
His customers win the jackpot. A small basket of Filipo’s fresh, silky ricotta runs at only €3 a pop. And a massive slab of the already-prepared Pecorino is just €8. I can’t help but to shake my head — he’s surely selling himself short.
I escape for a fresh of breath air and Graziano, our driver, catches my attention. He rambles some words in Italian — the language barrier is still very much an issue for me — and then leads me to the front door of a barn. “Va!” He pushes me forward and Enzo, Filipo’s gorgeous blue-eyed son, reaches out a hand. I follow him to three feeding stations where 50 hungry sheep fight over oats, dried fava beans and shelled orzo. Their sticky tongues pull up the grains, their cries create music. I marvel at the sun shining through their rough, dirt-filled curls and Enzo calls my name. As I turn, he “yeets” (teenage slang for throwing something violently — thanks, lil’ bro!) a 35-pound adult sheep into my arms. He isn’t a happy camper, so I let him down to run freely.
As we drove off, I felt a rush of emotions take over.
Now, I’m sitting in my room contemplating whether to sit in the stench that stained my clothes or to strip and hop in the shower (I’m leaning towards the latter, obviously). But I so badly want to hold onto this stinky smell and the nostalgia it brings for just a moment longer.
My mind races with vivid pictures of my grandfather on his sheep farm. He never made cheese, but it gave him so much joy to butcher an animal that he cared for to feed his loved ones. I saw that same pride in Filipo.
I felt grandpa’s presence with me all throughout this experience. I’m grateful for my memories and the reminder of him today.