Caciocavallo is a formaggio a pasta filata, or stretched-curd cheese, and part of the family that includes mozzarella, scamorza, provolone and halloumi. To make it, cow’s milk curds are kneaded and stretched by hand in hot water until they look like a fabulously long scarf of white putty. The process at this point, by the way, is almost exactly the same as that of mozzarella, for which the lengths are squeezed into balloon-like balls and mozzate (cut). However, for caciocavallo, the stretched lengths are rolled into balls, then soaked in brine before being bound with rope in pairs, neck to neck, and hung to mature a cavallo, or straddled over a beam or pole. Some say this position provides the name, but there are several other legends.
Hanging also exaggerates the shape, which is like a pear or teardrop. Or a Japanese okiagari-koboshi, a roly-poly toy that, regardless of how hard you try, always returns to an upright position when it’s knocked over – a symbol of perseverance and resilience, which seem particularly useful qualities these days. When it is young (one to three months), caciocavallo is pale, tender, bounces like a child’s cheek if you squeeze it, and has a mild and milky flavour. As it ages, it firms up and the flavour gets deeper, nuttier and almost spicy. All ages can be eaten just so, grated or cubed for cooking, and are suitable for this week’s recipe, cacio all’argentiera (cheese silversmith-style), as are the rest of the family (mozzarella, scamorza, provolone, halloumi …). There is a legend – of course – that the dish was invented in via dell’Argenteria in Palermo by the wife of a silversmith who couldn’t afford rabbit, so created a dish with an equally enviable smell. The smell is pretty extraordinary, as oregano – which is at its very best here, warm and wild – meets the sweetness of honey, acidity of vinegar and just a bit of chilli, then all of them settle into the folds of melted cheese.
Some recipes for cacio all’argentiera suggest that the slices of cheese should remain intact and have a deep, golden crust, but I am not sure how this is compatible with the cheese melting properly, which is vital if the other ingredients are going to mingle and sink in. And surely a melted mess is part of the pleasure – scooping the chaos of cheese with a corner of bread, or a chip. For me, this dish is Sicily in the summer: cooking dinner on our carpark-flat roof in the middle of Gela, drinking cheap, cold wine and baking cheese on a barbecue whose thin legs look as if they really should buckle, but never do – and making the neighbours jealous with the enticing smell, apparently.
Fried cheese with honey, oregano and vinegar
Prep 5 min
Cook 10 min
Serves 4 as starter or sharing dish, 2 as a main course
1 tbsp runny honey
1-2 tbsp red-wine vinegar
1 big pinch dried oregano
1 pinch red chilli flakes
1 pinch salt
4 x 5-6mm-thick slices caciocavallo, scamorza, provola, or 8 slices halloumi
In a small bowl, whisk the honey, vinegar, oregano, chilli and salt with a fork.
In a pan, warm a little olive oil over a medium heat, then add the slices of cheese and cook for three minutes, or until a light crust has formed. Using a spatula, turn over (don’t worry if it sticks a bit) and cook for another three minutes, so the slices are bubbling gently and, while not completely collapsed, considerably melted.
Pour the honey mixture over the cheese, leave to bubble for 10 seconds, then turn off the heat, cover and leave for a minute before serving.
To make this on a barbecue, take a double layer of foil and crunch up the edges to create a lip. Rub the inside of the package with olive oil and put on a coolish area of the barbecue for a minute, then lay in the cheese and cook until bubbling. Pour over the honey mixture and leave to bubble for a couple of minutes more before serving.