In the 1890s a young woman who lived in the Piemonte Region of Northern Italy sailed to America to marry a man she had yet to meet, an Italian immigrant who came from a village not far from hers. At that time arranged marriages were not uncommon. They were, in fact, a practical way for an immigrant family in America to bring over an unmarried sister or daughter. As for the immigrant bachelor or widower, he wanted a bride who shared his Old World culture and was willing to pay her travel expenses, sight unseen. Of course, if things didn’t work out for either half of a mismatch, he would also pay her return passage. That is, if she wanted to go back. Which wasn’t the case for the above-mentioned couple, who did marry and somewhat inspired the ill-fated arranged marriage between Carlo Baggio and Louisa Valenza in my historical novel, The Family Angel.
The real-life immigrant couple soon became parents to five children, those healthy enough to have survived infancy, one of whom became my mother. Her childhood recollections were of a disabled father struggling with lung disease he acquired while mining coal in Wisconsin and Southern Illinois. And of a mother, eventually my grandmother, who never stopped tending to her children and sick husband while working the land, milking cows, and making cheese she sold to support her family. A hard life I never witnessed first-hand. By the time I knew my grandma, she’d been twice widowed and living well within her income, mostly from sound investments and rental properties.
Although Grandma no longer made her own cheese, she did buy a variety of imported cheeses from a grocery store that catered to Italians. Ah-h, I can still taste my favorite, a soft cheese similar to French brie, one in the Piemontese dialect referred to as tomin (toe-mean′). Hubby D had similar memories of that same soft cheese which tasted better with each passing day as it ripened into a distinctive odor. Pungency, if you will, depending on one’s tolerance, or lack thereof, for the aging process.
All of which brings me to our recent trip to Italy, where we spent half of our time with the Italian cousins who visited us in America two years ago. D, who speaks the dialect while I just nod or prod him to translate my comments or theirs, started talking about the tomin we recalled from long ago and where could we buy that particular type in Piemonte since many cheeses were labeled as tomino.
“Buy?” Cousin L said in Piemontese. “No, no, we can make it. E will show you how.”
E, who is L’s husband, can do just about anything. And do it well, from remodeling a centuries-old home to gathering honey from beehives to hand-crafting a copper polenta pot for Hubby D. And yes, to making cheese from scratch, the Italian way.
Our late afternoon of cheese prep started in the village of Cuorgnè, with six liters of unpasteurized milk that E purchased from a vending machine, one euro per liter. That’s right, milk squirted out into the empty bottles E had brought along. Next stop, the farmacia (pharmacy) to purchase a bottle of caglia (rennet), the all important enzyme that creates cheese curds.
Back in the kitchen, early evening was approaching when E poured those six liters of milk into a large pot, turned on the gas flame under the pot, and let the milk slowly warm to the touch of his finger. Mine too, otherwise how would I know his definition of barely warm. Just hope my finger can remember that touch. Then E stirred ¾ T of caglia into the milk, turned off the heat, and let the mixture sit for half an hour to cool. Half an hour, what to do, what to do, time for a glass of wine.
After which E gently stirred the mixture with a whisk. Soon, what once was milk had now been reduced substantially and was forming curds. More wine while we waited. Then L brought out a stack of plastic mesh containers—round and about eight ounces in size. One by one E filled ten mesh containers, then transferred them to a rectangular container with a mesh insert placed on the bottom. It was there the containers were to sit while the whey drained away from the curds. Estimated time: about two hours.
So, to kill that time the four of us drove to a nearby cemetery (pardon my pun) and visited E’s family crypt. After leaving the cemetery, we ran into six cousins out for a stroll. After chatting with them, we drove another few miles to the home of E’s brother and his wife. A glass of wine, some nice buttery cookies, and conversation only I didn’t understand. Then back into the car for a series of hairpin curves and roads that were never meant to support two cars passing in the night before returning to check on our curds and whey.
Holy cow! (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) We had cheese, almost. E made a few adjustments, turning the neatly formed molds sideways to encourage more whey to drain into the large container. Just a little while longer, enough time for another glass of wine, or maybe two.
“Are we there yet?” I wanted to ask but instead took another sip of wine.
The village church bells were chiming ten when E finally gave his blessing.
How about a bit of cheese that couldn’t get any fresher, topped with a drizzle of good olive oil and red wine vinegar, plus a generous sprinkle of salt, yes! Add a few grissini (breadsticks) for crunch—yum and double yum.
Did this fresh cheese, what the Italians call tomino, taste anything like the aging tomin D and I recalled from years ago? Not at all, but in its own way was just as good. Even better was an evening to remember and a project to attempt now that we’re home again.
Mustn’t wait too long, I don’t want to forget the touch of my finger in that barely warm milk, the pride and patience accompanied by a nice glass of wine and lots of laughter to make the time pass a little easier.
How about you? Any cheese lovers out there; or memories of growing up in a kitchen where cheese was made?