The Maiorchino cheese of Novara di Sicilia

Tumbling down the streets during Novara di Sicilia’s unique cheese-rolling festival, the maiorchino embodies a 600-years old tradition spanning well beyond cheese.

The Maiorchino cheese of Novara di Sicilia

Tumbling down the streets during Novara di Sicilia’s unique cheese-rolling festival, the maiorchino embodies a 600-years old tradition spanning well beyond cheese.

STORY AND VIDEO BY TOMMASO RAGONESE

PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARCO CRUPI

The Maiorchino is a borderline legendary cheese. Unique to this part of the mountain range cutting across the north-east of Sicily (the Peloritani), its origins are difficult to ascertain with precision. The first time the word ‘maiorchino’ appears on record is in a document dating back to as early as the 1600s (with reference to a cheese-rolling competition, the “giuoco della Maiorchina”, which still takes place every Carnival Sunday in Novara di Sicilia)

At the time, land on the Peloritani was in the hands of a few big landowners, like everywhere else in Sicily until WWII. After that, land reform, the advent of industrial agriculture and, finally, globalisation slowly wore away the rural social and economic system which had been in place since time immemorial. As a result, the traditional cheese-making knowledge, passed on from one generation of zammattari (cheesemakers, in the local dialect) to the next, was on its way to the dustbin of history. And so was the Maiorchino, until Carmelo Ferrara decided it could not be over just yet.

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Originally from Fondachelli Fantina, a town situated lower in the valley of the Madridi river, Carmelo grew up in a family of shepherds. He later moved to Novara di Sicilia where he is known, as everyone is in the small towns of Sicily, by his nickname: ‘u Murgaellu. “In 1985 I went to see Don Peppino, who used to work as a zammattaru for Countess Maiorca”. This noble family, thought to be originally from Palermo, owned much land between the modern municipalities of Francavilla di Sicilia, Fondachelli Fantina and Novara di Sicilia.

Novara di Sicilia, perched on the northern side of the Peloritani mountains in the north-east of Sicily, is home to the Maiorchino cheese.

On this land, curatti, the local peasants, produced mainly hazelnuts and wheat for the Countess, and the pecurari looked after the livestock. “Don Peppino, who was already ninety years old, told me the name ‘maiorchino’ comes from the fact that the cheese was made from the milk of animals who were led to graze on fields where a wheat called ‘maiorca’ had been harvested”. Sheep and goats fed freely on the restuccia, the wheat and hay leftover after the harvest, and on wild mountain weeds to the effect that their milk acquired a most peculiar taste. That was indeed the milk used to make the maiorchino

The method taught me by Don Peppino is different from that used to make the classic sheep cheese, the pecorino. Sheep and goat milk is mixed in a 60/40 proportion and heated to about 45 degrees Celsius. “Don Peppino and the zammattari who taught him did not have thermometers: he told me to stick my hand in the milk until the heat was bearable. That was their way of determining the right temperature to put in the rennet”. The rennet used to make the milk curdle was made of dried kid’s (a baby goat) bowels, the same still employed by Carmelo in his workshop. After the quaddara, the traditional copper pot with the heated milk, has been taken off the fire, and the rennet put it, the milk is left to curdle for about an hour. The curdled milk, or quagliata, is then broken and the quaddara transferred back on the fire where it gets heated, again, ‘until the hand can bear it.

Once the temperature is right, Carmelo reaches arm-deep into the quaddara to gather the broken quagliata forming a ball. With the aid of his son and a linen cloth, Carmelo transfers the ball onto the mastrello, a wooden table, fitting it into the garbua, where the ball of curdled milk will become a newborn wheel of Maiorchino cheese. Firstly though, the ball will undergo a slow and delicate draining process.

Carmelo pierces through the ball of curdled milk with a thin steel stick, pressing down gently with his hands. He will repeat this operation until the serum oozing from the ball pressed against the garbua and the mastrello will turn from a yellowish to a clean, white colour. Meanwhile, in the quaddara previously containing the curdled milk, the leftover serum, topped up with more milk, is heated to some 85 degrees Celsius to make ricotta (incidentally, that is why ricotta literally means re-cooked). Once the ricotta has surfaced and has been extracted, the newborn maiorchino wheel is then dropped into the heated serum, where it will remain for about an hour.

Finally, the wheel is taken out, dropped again on the mastrello and the serum patiently drained by the same piercing and pressing process. After brining, the wheel is transferred to the curing chamber where it will be rubbed with salt for about three months, and subsequently with olive oil until ready. It is aged from a minimum of 6/8 months, to an alleged maximum of 24 months. The more it ages, of course, the more intense, ‘peppery’ the taste.

Carmelo’s son, Salvatore, and Caterina, his daughter, sell it in town at the Murgaellu shop as well as other local specialties. Caterina’s husband, Filippo, owns the Bar San Nicola next door and uses Carmelo’s ricotta to make their infamous pastries. Ravioli, diti d’apostolo and cannoli are among their best-sellers. Whilst you are most likely to find Filippo at the bar and Caterina or Salvatore at the shop, Carmelo is rarely to be seen in town. His place is up in the mountains, tending to the animals, testing the temperature of the milk in the quaddara with his bare arm; just like Don Peppino and all the zammattari before him.

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