This post is not so much about ricotta as it is about the people who produce it. About how the vagaries of livelihoods and traditional diet conspire to conjugate animal husbandry, emigration and terroir.
What if I told you that one of the best ricotta’s you would have the pleasure to eat can be sourced between Grottaferrata and Frascati, at the bottom of a hill, off the side of what used to be a country lane … and that is now fairly built up with houses on one side and olive trees on the other? At the end of the road lies a tumbledown monster of an apartment block, very seventies in architectural outlook, with function and form conceding nothing to aesthetics, that now serves as home to squatters I believe. Apparently, up until maybe ten years ago, it served as a pet shop which was really only a cover for its real business – an outlet for recreational drugs. The ricotta farm lies to the right of this bedraggled building and is easy to miss. I missed it twice before finally ‘finding’ it, swerving steeply on the curve as it went sharply downhill. The odd chicken clucks about the farm. And the vista in front is that of Rome. The location is truly princely, the building(s) and estate less so. The character Pop Larkin, H.E. Bates’s adorable farmer-gentleman (“The Darling Buds of May” and “A Little of What you Fancy” series) springs to mind. He would describe this place as “Perfick. Just perfick.”
Friends had recommended this ricotta outlet when we got into a conversation about how supermarkets are the ruin of local producers and shops etc and how, generally speaking, I bend over backwards to avoid them, shopping locally as much as I can and enjoy. Even as I work to curb my zeal, I can get a trifle earnest when holding forth on the ‘criminal’ activites of supermarkets and so I think that the long-suffering friend in question supplied the name more to shut me up than anything else. His sigh of relief when I got back to him in raptures over the ricotta was plain to see and he gave me the one-up thumb signal, glad to know that he had done his bit in expanding my choice of fair food shopping (his eagerness to change topic of conversation was also very noticeable, I might add).
At the time, Elena, who is from Romania and is now mother of two toddlers, was still working as housekeeper for us. She almost wept when she tasted the ricotta. “This is how we make it at home in Romania! This is how our ricotta is!” Well actually, “this” is how we make it in Italy too, I remonstrated. This is what proper ricotta tastes like as opposed to the stuff one can buy in supermarkets which is more akin to cream cheese (viz the brand Philadelphia).
Last time I went to buy some ricotta, I discovered that the shepherd who helps to tend the sheep is actually from Romania. I already knew that Mr Depau, master shepherd and owner of the farm, is from Sardinia. And that his wife, Elisabetta, is from Russia. They organise dinners at their place when the weather permits. Slow Food Frascati organised one such evening in September of 2011. It’s not ‘smart’, in fact the term ‘casual’ is putting it mildly. But when you have a canopy of stars over your head for a ceiling and the glittering view of the tiny twinkles of Rome’s lights in the background, the ambience takes on a glory all of its own.
Two summers ago, on the occasion of my husband’s birthday, we arranged to have a dinner there for our family and friends, some of whom were visiting from abroad. They roasted a pig over the spit and everything we had for our meal, save for the bread, was all theirs … cheese, olives, pasta, tomato sauce and vegetables. I remembering notching up the number of nationalities at the table and at the premises: Italy, of course, Holland, Thailand, Britain, Sweden, USA, Brazil, Rumania and Russia. It’s what prompted me to name this post “United Nations of Ricotta”. If only we could invoke the eating of ricotta to put an end to political tensions in the world today …
What you see below are the kinds of cheeses they produce, over and above the ricotta.
And this was “my” ricotta, the one I took home, still hot when it was placed inside a plastic bag that fortunately didn’t leak in the car.
If you’re ever in the area, do be sure to visit. If you’re a girl, Demetrio’s eyelashes alone are worth a visit.
Azienda Agricola Depau
Via Montiglioni 3, Grottaferrata, 06.9411984 o 340.1789505.
P.S. Demetrio moved to London in the Summer of 2015, sigh. So you can still get fabulous ricotta and pecorino but no more swooning over the eye-lashes!