I came, I saw, and I ate ricotta cheese at Vizzini’s 38th annual ricotta cheese festival. I’m not a huge fan of ricotta in general, but when there’s a food festival in Italy it’s usually not to be missed. There are festivals (called sagre) almost every weekend from spring through the fall, celebrating everything from artichokes to zucce (pumpkins) and just about everything in between.
The trip was planned through the base at Sigonella and almost 40 of us made the 1 ½ hour trip. The bus made a brief stop in Vizzini’s main piazza, and we were told to be back at quarter to 3, don’t be late. Looking around at the very tiny little town, I couldn’t imagine what would keep me busy until almost 3, since my ricotta limit is about two spoonfuls, and one can only eat so many cannoli.
The festival was just getting going as we arrived and vendors were setting up their various wares. A funny Sicilian guy named Sebastiano told me there was a city tour at 10 and that it might be a good way to start the day since the ricotta wasn’t quite ready. The tour was in Italian so I gleaned what I could from it, with help from Sebastiano who spoke English well. The highlights: a sea of nopales cactus growing on the hillside as well as on the roofs of the lesser used churches, a church that is open only once a year (not our day!) and a gorgeous kitchen garden with fave and pomegranates growing in what once was once a little palazzo.
And to the main event! Waiting to taste the freshly made ricotta turned out to be a brilliant idea, since when we arrived for our sample (a 20 ounce vat of steaming ricotta and whey) the line had disappeared. Somehow nobody wanted to eat molten ricotta in the sun on an 80 degree day. We persevered. We found a table in the shade and did like the locals, breaking the stale bread into bite sized portions, and scooping it up with a spoon. I can’t say I really liked it, as dairy has never been my thing, but I can say it was the best and most interesting ricotta I have ever tasted. It was creamy, and salty, with the full flavor of the sheep’s milk, but without any gaminess.
I asked the man at copper cauldron, who was stoking the wood fire and ladling out bowls of soupy ricotta, how the cheese is made. He told me that they boil the milk and add some portion of the sheep intestine to curdle it. Then they cook it slowly for about an hour to thicken it and to develop the flavor. That’s it! Simple, but so unlike the tasteless, gritty white cheese that passes for ricotta in the states.
By the time I had eaten my requisite 2 spoonfuls of ricotta it was almost 2 o'clock
and I’d yet to really explore the food vendors and their offerings, nor buy the cannoli that I had promised to Nick and his roommate, Ryan. The food vendors offered incredible sweets, pastries (both sweet and savory) and interesting things from the grill. Horsemeat is a local specialty, but after all of the cheese tasting, I didn’t have room for any carne di cavallo. I would like to try it though. I wonder which village hosts the sagra di horsemeat?
I had to hurry to get back to the bus, buying a 2 euro grocery sack full of mandarins on the way, which were taken care of by Nick’s marines upon my return. Nick, Ryan, and I took care of the cannoli. Delicious!