Smokin Sheep's Ricotta: Marcelli Formaggi
Great ricotta used to only be available in Italy. In fact, tasting fresh ricottas when in Sienna or Tuscany was bittersweet, because you knew that what you could get at home would only pale in comparison. Those vibrant flavors and textures were only available as long as you stood on foreign soil.
Now, fresh, delicious ricotta runs abundantly and freely through the blood of American cheese shops and recipes for homemade ricotta are easy to find and make.
But there is still one ricotta that is particular to Italy. Unlike the best fresh sorts that are also made domestically, Marcelli Formaggi ricotta is specific to the rolling hills of Abruzzo.
The Marcelli family makes many different types of ricotta, the bounties of which are covered in the new issue of Culture cheese magazine, but my favorite is their Ricotta al fumo Ginepro. It is made from the milk of Sopravvissana sheep who graze the Abruzzo hills surrounding a village of 300 people. The ricotta is a firmer style that, because it is aged just beyond 60 days, makes it across North American borders in a raw-milk state.
Like most professional cheesemakers, the Marcellis make their traditional ricotta with the whey remaining after they make their pecorinos. Then -here's the kicker- before they leave the ricotta to mature for two to three months, they smoke it.
Now, before you wrinkle your nose remembering the smoked "goudas" of your yesteryear and write off this dear cheese, consider that smoking cheese is an ancient practice that extends its life and one that is deeply rooted in tradition. Unlike some supermarket goudas that have been doused with artificial smoke flavoring, this cheese has been cold-smoked over juniper wood. The gentle smoking lends the ricotta delicate woodsy flavors that mingle expertly with its sheepy, nutty flavors and slicable texture.
"It's Not You, it's Brie" cheese club members will be blessed with some of this ricotta in their May club, but if you're not in the San Francisco Bay Area and are unable to drop by to pick your club up (must sign up 2 weeks to a month ahead of time), you can pick some up on the Marcelli website.
For cheese plate consumption, serve with a side of toasted walnuts, walnut-wheat bread and small-batch honey. On its own, drizzle with a high-end olive oil and freshly cracked pepper. In a salad, this cheese couldn't be happier than it is paired with the earthy sweetness of roasted beets, although in summer time, I could imagine it rocking a salad of grilled corn cut from the cob and heirloom tomatoes.
Lastly- just a sneak mention, here are some of my favorite fresh, domestic ricottas (but try all you can, the more local it is, the fresher it is, and fresh ricotta is best consumed young): Bellwether sheep, Bellwether Jersey cow's milk and Salvatore Brklyn.
"It's Not You, it's Brie" readers, do you buy ricotta, or do you make your own? Any local ricottas whose names you'd like to share?