Caciocavallo belongs to a group of cheeses not readily available outside Italy. To formally put it into place; this is a pasta filata cheese, just like the very available mozzarella and provolone. But that’s about all similarities there are. Like the other cheeses within this family, it hails from south Italy, particularly along the Apennine mountain range. It has to be said that most of these cheeses are pasteurised, but a few honorable exceptions can be found. Naturally, I will write about these, each special in their own right.
A bit about the name caciocavallo
As it is, it actually means horse cheese. At least it is one of the interpretations, not insinuating the cheese has anything to do with horses. Normally made from cow’s milk, but varieties made from both ewe, goat and in rare cases buffalo milk, do occur. All these special varieties are pasteurised, though. Since we have touched on the etymology, it seems like the name derives from the fact that two cheeses were tied to a rope and hung over a pole for maturing. Just like saddling up a horse. Of course it could be they hung cheeses over the horseback as well when they were out riding – for picnic or something.
A very special cheese this since it is only made from milk from the Podolica cow. This is a south Italy indigenous cattle race, not to be found anywhere else. A very hardy cattle living outside all year round grazing with no additional feed. bring it inside during the harsh winter months is of no use, it is too warm, so they’ll escape outside. Te cheese is made from raw milk from this race in the areas of Calabria, Basilicata, Campania and Puglia.
The Caciocavallo Podolico are kept in limestone caves for maturation. After three months you have a fine cheese with a golde rind tasting nice, but are mostly for the impatient consumers, or if you wish to use it for cooking. The cheese is actually frequently used for cooking in that area. If you care to wait, you will be in for quite an other experience. After two to three years we’re talking. Colour is ochre. Texture is firm and you break loose small pieces of the cheese with the handy parmesan knife pictured above. Flavour is savoury, herbs and barn. Just wonderful the flavour. This is a cheese rarely sold outside of the area where it is made. So if you want to dig into this one, you probably have to go there. Probably well worth the tour. By the way, the cheese has status as a Slow Food Presidium in Basilicata.
As the name indicates we have moved further south, to Sicily. A lot of fine cheese here, Caciocavallo included. The cheese comes from the many small hillside farms in the south to southwestern part of the island. Made of raw cow’s milk this as well, but otherwise very different from the mainland varieties when it comes to shape and size. The Sicilian variety is rectangular like a huge bar weighing from eight to fifteen kilos. Shorter maturing time as quite a few are eaten fresh, while others get anything from two to twelve months in the maturing room.
For both there cheeses there are a couple of things that unite them, apart from the first part of their names.
Traditional Cheese making
They are both made using traditional cheese making equipment, meaning wood. being it vats or ladles. In Sicily they use wooden moulds, tavuleri, in the local language to give it the rectangular shape. Being made the way they are gives the cheeses some special features like the Caciocavallo Podolico is known for containing high amounts of Omega 3. That’s about the cattle breed and the pastures they feed on and of course the cheese making keeping all the good stuff unspoiled. As far as Caciocavallo Palermitano is concerned that also means no starter culture is added. Mother Nature and wooden vats take care of that. Perhaps slightly technical this, but this is how it was done during the old days, and we have survived. Really strange that is, don’t you think?
A note of caution. When in Sicily you need to ask your way to the real cheese. It is a popular cheese and some have taken the liberty to create a few short cuts. That means using ultra modern cheese making methods, aka all steel and high producing milking cattle hardly seeing any sunlight at all. You won’t get the same tasting experience.
These are both cheeses that require red wines with body. Generally it can be said that reds made from Nero d’Avola or Aglianico will pair very well.
Valuable sourceNyttig kunnskapskilde: The Oxford Companion to Cheese. (Oxford University Press – 2016)