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Ragusano cheese makes rare appearance in Kansas City

Olives stuffed with almonds and cooked in honey, sugar and spices — a great accompaniment to Ragusano cheese.
Olives stuffed with almonds and cooked in honey, sugar and spices — a great accompaniment to Ragusano cheese. Special to The Star

In the Province of Ragusa in southern Sicily, a special cheese is made.

If you are a cheese lover, you may be familiar with Caciocavallo. You know the cheese you see hanging from the rafters when you go into a good Italian market? It is usually in small, round orbs tied at the top with a rope and connected to another cheese so it hangs perfectly balanced.

Caciocavallo has been made all over southern Italy for thousands of years. It is translated either “horse cheese” or “horseback cheese,” depending on whom you talk to. You can imagine that a rope with two cheeses on the ends would sling nicely over a horse’s back for transportation.

The very traditional Caciocavallo from Ragusa is called Ragusano. It is not made into small balls but into large rectangular loafs. We don’t see it around Kansas City much, but we recently got our hands on some at The Better Cheddar after a 15-year hiatus.

According to its protected status, the cheese must be made with raw milk from the modicana breed of cow. This deep red-coated and stocky breed originated in Ragusa and is raised mainly for diary. The curds are separated and stretched like Mozzarella. This puts Ragusano into the “pasta filata” type of cheese, meaning “spun paste” but we usually say “pulled” or “stretched” curd cheese.

The cheese is then shaped with wood forms. After this, it is brined in large vats for several days. This gives the cheese the salt it needs for flavor and preservation.

The cheeses are then taken and hung two-by-two to age. The distinctive bend often found on the cheese is formed from the hanging of the cheeses. Once the cheeses age, they are stacked on wooden shelves and aged for several months and even years.

For me, the flavor of Ragusano is not as piquant and overpowering as many other aged, pulled curd cheeses. It does get more flavor as it ages, but it is decidedly more mellow then an aged provolone. It is savory, nutty and a little sweet. The paste of the cheese has a smattering of small holes. The texture is a little chewy but nice.

Ragusano goes great with cured meats and olives and in many dishes. There are two accompaniments that I have found are really nice with it. Kansas City Canning Co.’s balsamic-pickled grapes are Ragusano’s friend for sure. The sweet and tangy grapes contrast nicely with the savory cheese.

Also try Navarino Icons Olive Spoon Sweet. This Greek delicacy is kalamata olives stuffed with almonds and then cooked in honey, sugar and spices. It’s unlike anything I have tried and pairs great with the cheese. (If you have some olives left over try them atop vanilla ice cream. I know it sounds weird, but it is really good.)

Hopefully it won’t be another 15 years before we see Ragusano at The Better Cheddar, but as for now it’s here in the case. Check it out.

Lincoln Broadbooks loves cheese. He is one of the first cheesemongers in the United States and Canada to become an American Cheese Society-certified cheese professional. He is the manager and buyer for the Better Cheddar in Prairie Village. You can find him on Twitter @LincolnBbooks and on Instagram @lincycheese.

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