Imagine a summer’s afternoon on the hills of a grassy Calabrian Landscape, watching the village below, surrounded by clanging of bells hanging from bleating goat’s beard. Lull to trance, gentle breeze massages the temple that frames squinting eyes- flickering in the afternoon’s soothing sun- suspended like time has stagnated, curdled, solidified- nothing to do but eat grass.
Sunset. The goats are guided to the shack where the men will rest for the night. The women will arrive soon with the evening meal and then return home to the children, while the men continue to work in the light of the olive oil lanterns, weaving baskets, cutting and shaping spoons from collected branches and making goats milk ricotta and cheese after the evening milking. The goats settle. The occasional tremor of movement a subtle clang in the distance and a settling to silence with the darkness and repose.
This is the ricotta basket and wooden spoons sent from Zia Maria to Giuseppa Callipari with a visitor in the 1970s when Peppa lamented the lack of implements in Mildura where she lived with her husband Giuseppe to make a family and a life in the region of Nichol’s Point. She liked to make ricotta. A cow was shared by Father in law who lived on the property adjacent. Eventually they would purchase their own cow and there would be an abundance of fresh milk for the family. The Cow replaced the goats of what had been the Calabrian way of life and the milk was considered much more nutritious and higher in fat content, ideal for making ricotta.
The morning ritual of milking the cow was Giuseppe’s job and Peppa would gather and cure the milk over the week.
The gifts of milk would bring rewards of pane cu latti sprinkled with sugar like bread and butter pudding. This was a usual Calabrese breakfast in a new found land where there was no polenta -yet.
Milk collected over the week, the cream rising to the top.
Mother’s digit finger dipped cut around the thick like disc of milk fat that had risen to the top, the disc lifted by hand and messily dripped around the edges of the mixing bowl. On high speed under the electric mixer until the fat separated and then by hand massaged into a round, yellow, thick brick of butter- impressions of finger prints left, uneven and soft. This was how I learnt to make butter.
Then the curdling of the milk. Rennet added.
Peppa kept a long wooden poll across the sink taps. I’m sure it had been fashioned from a curtain rod- it had become worn and smooth from mixing curds, rolling pasta, pastry and the licking of bottoms with smacks- this wooden stick was her wand to command- her magic, her power over all of us.
And with this stick she stirred the curds and weigh for the cheese and the stringy sponginess that was like a fresh mozzarella- chewy to the texture- lifted gently from the pot and squeezed into the round ricotta vessels. She would spend long periods meditating over the pressing of the curds, squeezing the flesh, removing all the liquid, until it was ready to be cured into cheese.
Day by day rubbing salt and brine and oil. First on top, then holding the disc on the edge and rubbing around the cylinder and finally the bottom, before resting it for another day.
Sometimes the cheese made from the colostrum of cow’s mother’s milk made the butter and cheese taste sour- nothing wasted and Peppa said this was better for us.
The smaller, longer ricotta vessel like this one was reserved for the ricotta- the second cooking of the milk. Ricotta translated is ‘cooked again’.
The whey reheated, extra milk added with lemon juice or vinegar would enable the curdling of the fat to frothy ricotta. The ladling of the hot blubber gently into the wicker. The next day all the liquid drained out, the ricotta could be prized out of the vessel and cut into thick slices and fried for lunch.
The ricotta that did not make it into the vessel was spooned into bowls and drizzled with honey for dessert. Dad would enjoy drinking the warm whey liquid leaning against the wood fired stove revealing in the warmth of the occasion.
The wooden spoons were supposed to be used for mixing, eating or for the memory. They were not as practical as a simple straight wooden spoon, or stick so they were reserved for the memory and the knowledge that a relative in Calabria had made them. Memory of place. Touching place. Implements made from the land Peppa once knew, had grown in the place that was once home.
Now ricotta is cheap and arrives in plastic, harder to digest.
Here is a miniature clay pot, typical of what might have sat on the lunch table with water or wine- larger versions used for gathering water- one tap for one village, meant fetching water was a job for someone, probably a young woman.
This clay jug has Peppa’s name written on it. If you look closely you can also see that Zia Maria has written that it is from her. Scribbled in pencil, marking it with trust that it would reach her and that she would know who it was from. A gift and a wish of connection.
These implements are made from the gifts of the land
The skill of the craftsperson
The pattern of the weave
There is beauty in the imperfections
The weathered patterns worn, become the stories that they hold
In the treasure of forlorn
Hold them dear
A memory that reminds us to appreciate
If we listen with integrity and see the truth of what we knew
And where we have come from
That the land holds the answers
Nature will teach us
The lessons are in the notion of sustainability
To know our own nature as humans
Look to and understand the nature that surrounds us
Watch, quietly and all will be revealed
The stories that are told to us
Do not forget these stories
These are our stories.