Felciata and Tomatoes
The following post is from the project I am working on with some friends called Roshambo. Part game. Part art project. It's a multi-disciplinary and collaborative art project that we play in rounds. Each round, one of us creates a piece of work and the rest of us respond to it by making something in our own discipline. I was the first piece in Round Two. To see what my friends create, follow along on our webpage or various social media platforms!
One of my favorite things about working at Manresa is the people I get to work with every day. Not only is everyone very talented and hardworking, but everyone is always pushing themselves to learn more and try new things. Every once in a while, we have Sunday night projects. We're given a theme and we make something. It can be as complicated as making a whole dish or as simple as a component using a new technique we wanted to try. It's a little nerve-wracking but is also really fun and a chance to try new things.
We were recently given the theme of tomatoes and/or peppers. I kicked around a few ideas until I landed on making something inspired by my time spent in Italy. For some reason, I've been very nostalgic about the summer I spent in Calabria five years ago. Maybe it's because I can't believe it's been five years already. But while I was there I fell in love with how simple and how delicious food can be.
In college, I studied Anthropology (with an emphasis on food culture) and I decided to do a senior honors project. The project was a cross-cultural comparison of how small-scale, artisan cheesemakers source, produce and sell their cheeses. I worked for a cheesemaker in Idaho off-and-on for several years and I spent a summer living on a small family farm called Dolci Pascoli in a tiny town in Calabria, learning as much as I could about the family and how and why they made cheese. The experience is documented more detailed on a blog I kept while I was there, which is here. I learned a ton. And the food was incredible.
As expected, summer in Southern Italy meant we ate a lot of fresh veggies, including tomatoes. And, being a cheese farm, I ate a wide variety cheeses. So for my dish, I wanted to make a cheese I learned while over there.
Everything in Italy is very regional. Not only does each region have their own food specialties, but even each town does. The cheese I wanted to make was based on a specialty of Morano Calabro, the town where I was living. It’s called felciata. It’s a fresh cheese usually made with raw goat’s milk (sometimes mixed with sheep’s milk as well) that’s been filtered through native ferns and then set with animal rennet. It’s incredibly soft and delicate. Because it’s so simple, the flavors of the milk are really accentuated. Traditionally, summer goat’s milk is used because that is when it tastes best because of the animals’ diets.
In order to replicate the cheese, the first thing I needed to do was find raw goat’s milk, which is tricky. Europeans are much less afraid of raw milk, unlike here in the US. It’s hard enough to find goat’s milk in the grocery store, let alone raw. I ended up finding some at a small independent grocery store here in San Jose. Instead of filtering it through ferns, I wanted to do something quintessentially California, which made me think of citrus. I stripped a handful of leaves from my little Meyer Lemon tree and tore them up to add to the milk. I let it steep like that for about 24 hours. Then I strained it and it was ready to become cheese.
The next part I needed to figure out was how exactly to make the cheese. It was a specialty cheese that the family rarely made so I only helped make it a couple times when I was there. Plus, this was 5 years ago now, so I couldn’t remember all the details. The cheese is also unique to Morano Calabro, so I couldn’t find it by just looking it up in one of my cheesemaking books. And there aren’t really many other cheeses like it. Fortunately, I remembered that they had a decent amount of information about the cheese on Dolci Pascoli's website. So at least I had temperature and length of time they set it. But it was a lot of trial and error to find an amount of rennet that worked, but I finally came up with a curd that had a nice texture and flavor.
The rest of the dish progressed from there. I wanted it to be simple so the cheese wasn’t too overpowered. Morano was also where I really fell in love with tomatoes. I ate so many salads, toasts, and sandwiches with just tomatoes dressed with olive oil, salt and maybe some onions or herbs. To incorporate those flavors I garnished the cheese with fresh tomatoes and tomato water. Tomato water was my way of amping up the tomato flavor and using other flavors without covering with cheese with too many other things, and the flavor could be more of a background to the cheese.
One of my favorite things about coming up with new dishes or testing new techniques is researching the how and why behind the original. Understanding the people and culture surrounding an ingredient is something really special. This was especially true in the case of the felciata. It’s a unique cheese that has an extremely long tradition to a very small group of people. It’s really interesting to connect to other people and another culture in such a remote yet intimate way.