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While exploring the booths of cheese at the big cheese festival in Bra Italy (home of Slow Foods), I was amazed at the number of different cheeses in this style from various regions of southern Italy.

So when I returned to my "cheese lab" the quest began to find out what it was and how to make it in a traditional style.
I do love a challenge!

If you have a little understanding of the Italian language, you will have quickly figured out that Caciocavallo literally translates to the "Horse Cheese" or more like "over the horseback cheese."
The name comes from the tradition of making and tying together in pairs and then hanging over a long elevated pole to age, just as they must have done long ago when they were thrown over the "Cavallo" or donkey's back to transport to the markets.

Caciocavallo originates from Southern Italy and is a traditional, stretched curd cheese made from cow or ewes milk and currently even buffalo milk. It is stretched into a natural gourd or teardrop shape with a knot at the top so that it can be tied at the thin end with a cord to hang.

After a period of three months, this cheese can be eaten as a table cheese but after an aging period of two years it can be used for grating with much more character. These are sometimes smoked (Affumicata).

A form of Caciocavallo will weigh at the most about 3 pounds (1.5 k) and is shaped rather like a long-necked gourd.

On a darker note, in Italian language the expression "to end up like Caciocavallo" means to be hanged.

A Bit of History

Caciocavallo is made throughout southern Italy .. Molise, Puglia, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily, and ranks with Parmigiano-Reggiano and Gorgonzola, as well as its regional sister mozzarella, in terms of prominence and historical significance. Yet it remains mostly unknown in North America. The process goes back in history to several hundred years BC.

The cows that produce milk still graze in open pastures and even though some dairies have more industrialized methods, much of the production is still done by hand. Therefore the craft that's been perfected for generations is preserved amid automation.

Variations in Style

The cheese can be allowed to ripen to varying ages and styles:

  • Semi-Stagionato:
    At sixty days, the slightly aged Caciocavallo has a sweet flavor from the pastures the cattle graze on, and a creamy texture. The majority of the hanging cheese will be sold after two months and is the most popular and least expensive type.
  • Stagionato:
    After another 60 to 120 days the cheese becomes drier, saltier, with a sharper bite, plus it has more spicy notes.
  • Stagionato “extra":
    The most rare and expensive version of the cheese, ages in a stone cave for up to two years. This is a crumbly, intense cheese and is the most extraordinary. During the aging a protective mold forms around the cheese giving them a rustic appearance but inside, the cheese turns from milky white to a deep straw yellow. This cheese is best eaten after dinner, accompanied by a sweet dessert wine to soften its bite.
  • Also with additions:
    The fresher versions can also be made with additions of cracked black pepper, spicy red peppers, even truffles (tartufa) and other flavoring additions. In these cases the mellow cheese and the character of the additions meld into very complex flavors.

Pasta Filata: a range of styles ...

This group can be quite diverse and will include a very wide range of cheeses:

The softest of these are the Mozzarella group which can range from the soft fresh cheese to the firmer pizza cheese. The character of these are their high level of moisture and mild flavor from aging times that range from fresh to a few weeks old.

This group is characterized by a medium moisture level, a firmer texture, and a more complex flavor. They are usually found in medium sizes of 2-3 lbs. and are predominately made in southern Italy which is noted for its grazing lands. Most of these are in the medium moisture range. Often these are still produced by small producers with much of the process still done by hand.

These cheeses can sometimes be small but are usually much larger than the Caciocavallo group. These cheese are often found in much larger sizes and usually much drier with longer aging. The result can be a very complex and very piquant flavor. This group had its origin in southern Italy as well but during the mid-late 19th century as the movement to the industrial north of Italy took place, Provolone followed. Today the current production is mostly in the North of Italy focused around the Po River Valley.

The difference between the Caciocavallo and Provolone can sometimes be blurred because of their similar origin of style. You will find very moist small Provolone as a table cheese and you will find drier and larger Caciocavallo cheese such as the famous Caciocavallo Ragusano from Sicily.

The Process:

As we have already mentioned earlier, this cheese is of the Pasta Filata or stretched curd style in which the cheese proteins develop a unique character for forming long chains and will stretch out into long threads when heated.

The cheese first relies on a natural dairy bacteria to convert the milk sugars (lactose) to lactic acid. The milk is then heated before the bacteria begins working. Then after a small amount of lactic acid is produced, the rennet is added and the milk allowed to sit quiet while a firm curd develops.

Once the firm curd develops it can be cut to release the whey. The curd is then stirred for varying lengths of time and the temperature may be raised during this time. The size of the cut, how long it is stirred, and the final temperature will determine the final moisture and in turn the amount of time the cheese should be aged.

Once the curd reaches the proper moisture (this is quite variable depending on the cheeses targeted here) the whey is drained and the curds consolidated in draining bags or forms.
At this point the curds will be kept warm while the bacteria continue to reduce the lactose to lactic acid. As this happens the taste of the cheese will go from a sweet milk flavor to a moderate acid flavor.
The final acid is quite important because the ability of the curd to stretch will be determined by a very specific acid level (pH 5.3-5.2) and temperature (130-140F). Too much acid and the cheese will not retain its shape and texture but too little acid and the cheese will not stretch. The final moisture of the cheese will also determine how well the cheese stretches. If it is too dry the stretch will poor and too moist and the final cheese will not keep its shape and texture.

The final step in this process is the stretching. The acidified curd is cut into narrow strips and heated in hot water or whey until it begins to stretch. The stretching is important for this style because it realigns the proteins in the cheese to give its characteristic texture and mouthfeel.
The Caciocavallo needs no forms because the final form is done by stretching in your hands and forming into an elongated pear shape.

When you reach the final form, the cheese must be chilled in cold water to retain its shape and then brined. When it comes out of the brine it is ready to be tied and hung until ready to eat.

A Recipe for Making Caciocavallo

Before you begin:

You will need:
2 gallons of milk (Not UltraPasturized)
1 packet of our C101 or 1/16 tsp of our MA011 culture
Liquid single strength rennet (1/2 tsp - 2.5 ml)
Salt preferably a good medium crystal cheese salt for making brine
A good thermometer
A knife to cut the curds, and a spoon or ladle to stir the curds with
1 basket mold for draining and ripening the curd mass
A colander and butter muslin to drain the curds
A pot or stainless steel bowl to heat the curds in for stretching
A wooden spoon to use for handling the hot curd

Calcium chloride for pasteurized cold stored milk

Everything needs to be clean and sanitized.

NOTE: this recipe can be increased by changing all ingredient amounts proportionate to milk volume.

Please Note also that my photos below were from a larger batch- so essentially a 3x version of this recipe. Don't let that confuse you.

Acidifying and heating the milk:

Begin by heating the milk to 92F. You do this by placing the milk in a pot or sink of very warm water. If you do this in a pot on the stove, make sure you heat the milk slowly and stir it well as it heats.

Once the milk is at 92F the culture can be added. To prevent the powder from caking and sinking in clumps, sprinkle the powder over the surface of the milk and then allow about 2 minutes for the powder to re-hydrate before stirring it in.

Cover the milk and allow it to ripen for 30 minutes. You should observe no changes in this time. For high fat milk you can stir the cream down every few minutes.

Coagulation with rennet:

Once the ripening phase is complete, add about 2.5ml -1/2 tsp of single strength liquid rennet.

The milk now needs to sit quiet for 60 minutes while the culture works and the rennet coagulates the curd . You may notice the milk thickens at about 15 min. but wait the full time. The thermal mass of this milk should keep it warm during this period. It is OK if the temp drops a few degrees during this time.

The proper curd will break clean and the whey that develops in the break will be not too cloudy (cut too early) nor it will be too clear (cut too late).

Cutting curds and releasing the whey:

The curd is now ready to cut into 1/2-5/8 inch pieces (corn to hazelnut size) to release the whey. Make vertical cuts at right angles and then use a spoon or flat ladle to cut the horizontal pieces.
You can see by the photos below though that I have found a very large whisk with thin wires that I have reshaped a bit to do this job for me, so be creative.

NOTE: For a drier cheese cut smaller and for more moisture cut larger.
This is a major control point.

Be very careful with the initial stir since the curds can be very easily broken.

Cooking and stirring the curds:

Now it is time to begin drying out the curds. This will be done by increasing the heat slowly to 102F. The heat needs to be increased slowly over 20 minutes. The curds can then be cooked for another 15-30 minutes if needed to dry the curds enough.

The final curds should be cooked well through and should be examined to make sure that enough moisture has been removed. A broken curd should be firm throughout and the curds should have a moderate resistance when pressed between the fingers.

When this point is reached the curds can be allowed to settle under the whey.
Allow them to settle for 5-10 minutes.

NOTE: This is another major control point because the longer the curd is stirred and the higher the temperature .. the drier the final cheese.

Removing the whey:

Remove the whey with a ladle down to the curd level. I use the basket mold as shown in the photo below to keep the curds from the whey. Also note the photo of forms being sanitized in hot (145F) water below. It's a very important part of my routine here.
NOTE: this is a very sweet whey at this point and will make a wonderful ricotta.

The curd is now ready to be consolidated by pulling all of the curds to one side of the pot. You can now remove as much whey as possible.

At this point you can now add any additions such as peppers (smoked jalapenos are my favorite) etc. Mix these in well. Now consolidate the curd mass with a light hand pressure.

You can now move the curd mass in large pieces to the draining molds and press lightly to consolidate.

Continue ripening the curds:

The curd mass now needs to be kept warm while the acid development continues. I do this by placing warm whey or water (90-100F) into the cheese pot that I just emptied and cleaned and using a rack to keep the curd basket out of the water. I place the draining and ripening curd in this incubator to keep the bacteria happy and working.
While you are waiting, prepare a pot of hot water simmering at 175-185F towards the end of the ripening time period.

In about 5-6 hrs I check the curd to see how the acid development is going.
"How will I know when its ripe?" you ask!
Well it is really quite simple-slice a thin 1/4" strip off the curd mass and place in a bowl of the hot water (give it time to heat up). If it stretches, you are good to go. If not then allow the curd to ripen another 15 minutes and then retest.
If you are lucky enough to have a pH meter for this, you are looking for a pH of 5.2-5.3.

The Stretch:

Now for the FUN! :

  • The ripened curd mass should be sliced into a heat safe bowl or pan in 1/4" strips. This will allow for a faster and more even heating.

  • A small amount of the hot water should be poured into the side of the bowl (not directly on the strips of curd). This should be just enough to cover the curds. Make sure you move the curds well enough to keep them separate to allow for even heating. With high fat raw milk you may notice some milky color from escaping fat. This is hard to avoid because the fat is now in its liquid state.

  • When the curd begins to visually stretch a bit, you are ready to change the water. Empty the water from the curd and add fresh hot water. The curd will now become easier to stretch and will begin to meld into one mass. Begin stretching by lifting with a wooden spoon. Do this several times, folding the curd back on itself. If the stretching becomes difficult, add more hot water and keep reheating for a good stretch.
  • Soon you will notice the lumps disappearing and the curd will begin to take on a smoother texture. If you are brave you can now begin stretching the curds with your hands. Good plastic gloves may help, but I find that dipping my hands in COLD water will make this much less painful (the curd should now be about 135-140F). The stretch you do here will give the cheese the texture of the style. A few nice long stretches will suffice, just fold the curd back on itself several times at the end of each stretch.

  • Now you are ready to shape the cheese. Remember to dip your hands in COLD WATER:
    1. Begin by folding the cheese into a flat square.
    2. Then push down on all of the edges to form a bag shape.
    3. Stuff these edges into the center of the cheese as you squeeze the neck of the bag closed. Keep reheating the cheese as needed.
    4. Continue to push and stuff into the center opening as you narrow the neck into a nice topknot (where you will tie off to hang the finished cheese).
    5. You will find that the hot curd will have a tendency to sag, so keep it moving and reshape as you go. Your initial shape should be more like a ball with a narrow topknot.
      If you have not been dipping your hands in cold water, you are probably in pain by now.
    6. Once you have a nice smooth surface and the shape you want, it is time to cool the mass in cold water but first allow the cheese to hang briefly and gravity will change the ball shape into a beautiful pear shape. Immediately chill the cheese in COLD water, but do not allow it to rest on the bottom because it will be reshaped there. I generally just hold the warm cheese in the water until the cheese begins to cool and retains its shape. The cheese will be somewhat buoyant in the water but will still rest on the bottom otherwise.

Although I have been doing this for some time, I feel that my results are not as effortless and smooth as what I see the experienced Italians doing but I do think this comes with time and experience. Although this all sounds a bit involved, take a look at a first timer below making his first Caciocavallo.

      This series of photographs shows Roberto, one of my regular workshop people who flies in from Tunisia for this class.

      The great thing is that Roberto has never made this cheese before nor had any experience making the Caciocavallo form.

Salting :

Once the cheese cools enough for the surface to be cool, it can be floated (if it rests on the bottom the cheese will change shape) in a saturated brine solution for 2-3 hours brine time per lb. of cheese. For moister cheese use less time and drier cheese more time. The cheese will float in the brine due to the brine's higher density. Make sure you turn the cheese at least once in the brine during this soak.
The internal temperature of the cheese will be still warm enough to flow somewhat so that natural forces will take place and the final cheese will have some of its irregular dimples smoothed out a bit.

Finishing and aging:

Once the cheese leaves the brine it is ready to be "Strung Up". Simply use a piece of twine or other string that will not cut into the cheese surface, tie a loop around the smaller knot end of your Caciocavallo and hang it in a cool dry place to age a bit. The drier cheese need more time but at least give them 6 weeks or more.

This series of photographs below was taken while visiting in Italy and gives you an idea of what to expect in the finished cheese.

That's all for this month and do remember - if you try this one, have fun doing it. Maybe it wont be perfect the first time, but it is an adventure in history as well as food and is sure to improve with time.

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