by Jacinta Mulders
When I was a child we lived two hours from the city, so it was difficult to find good ricotta. Mum knew a cheese factory in Sydney’s suburbs. From long drives she returned with plastic bags heavy with ricotta and tubs of bocconcini.
I love the wet paper feeling of wrapped ricotta; the milked water dribbling from the bag. It connotes freshness, the opposite of a tub from the supermarket with a month-long expiration date. At the delicatessen counter of Lamonica IGA in Haberfield, the aproned attendants cut wedges from large mounds of cheese with wooden paddles. We stopped there sometimes on our way to and from the city to have lunch, where, in the park, we tore open bread rolls shaped like roses and stuffed them with ricotta and slices of translucent prosciutto. Between bites we fingered cherry tomatoes and quarters of oiled artichoke.
It is unsurprising that my favourite cakes are those filled with ricotta-based cream. I am put in mind of being eight years old, in Siena, and going to the pastry shop to buy a large box of biscuits for my smocked classmates; some with dots of jam, others with a scalloped edge.
My preferences have not lessened with adulthood. When I travelled to Sicily with a college friend in April a few years’ past, we google-d directions that would take us to cannoli filled with different custards. To find Pasticceria Cappello we had to walk down a steep, uneven staircase from the curve of a road. It’s no great secret—it is the Sicilian pastry shop recommended by The New York Times. Customers filled the shop and lifted wrapped, ribboned packages from the assistants who held them up over glass cases crowded with chocolate rolls, sandwiched biscuits, doughnuts, bonbons and tartlets. One type of pastry monopolised the indoor and outdoor-facing trays: an engorged profiterole in neat lines. It was colourful and knobbly, not like the rectangular mille-feuille or neat chocalatey gâteau opéra of French pastry shops. It was the size of an orange, covered in alabaster icing speckled with segments of glace cherry, orange peel, and pistachio crumbs. We found out later they are called sfinci di San Giuseppe, or St Joseph’s Day pastries, and are customarily served on and around St Joseph’s Day in March, and to herald the coming of spring. They have a creamy filling based on sheep’s-milk ricotta, which is stippled with chocolate chips and pieces of candied pumpkin. In Sicily it’s common for sweets to contain ricotta made from sheep’s milk, rather than cow’s: the tang is intended to offset the sweetness of the sugar.
After that afternoon we started seeing sfince everywhere; as though Palermo had been visited by a strange, sweet fever. The shop assistant put ours on a gold cardboard tray, put the tray in a clear cellophane bag, then wrapped it in red paper and tied it with a simple white ribbon. We ate them at the apartment. They were lovely and creamy, an ideal dessert: at once clean and complex. As a foodstuff, ricotta is common in Palermo. In the warm evenings we ate salted ricotta grated over eggplant in dishes of pasta alla norma. During the day we bought small blocks of it for lunchtime excursions from the open market near our street.
My feeling about ricotta is indivisible from the memory of where I ate it. Perhaps I am unduly imaginative, but I can’t lift a white spoonful of it to my mouth without being catapulted to, for example, breakfast in Florence when I was twenty-one, the raggedy treat of fresh ricotta after school, my grandmother talking about varieties of cheese in Lombardy with the solemnity and exactitude that someone else might use when setting out the different functions of our parliament. I think about my family, split with the hazardous disarray of the twentieth century, my ancestors, with wood and cows, in a valley in the Alps. Ricotta is one way of getting to this place; a way of feeling past the limitations of real-time borders.